LETTERS TO STRANGERS WHO FEEL LIKE FAMILY: PART 4

This is the final installment of my series, Letters to Strangers Who Feel Like Family, but I continue to write notes of gratitude and comfort to those living alone without visitors and their tireless caregivers, along with other essential workers. These notes are not fancy. They are simple messages from my heart. Please contact me if you would like support in writing your own letters/notes.

Hello!

You don’t know me, but you may have known my parents or my grandparents. I grew up in East Brady. It’s my hometown. The building in which you live holds a special place in my heart. It’s not simply a building. It’s your home, your community, your family. It was my community, too, because it provided a warm home for my grandparents.

I spent so much time with Grandma at her apartment, especially on Sundays. Our family tradition was to gather around in her living room on Sunday evenings. I often took my homework with me to spread out on her table. Saying goodnight to Grandma at the end of our Sunday evening visits gave me an extra pang of sadness because it meant the weekend was officially over.

Grandma and I spent many Sunday mornings together, too. Sometimes my whole family took Grandma to church out at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. Other times I drove her, just the two of us. I’d call her right before I left my house so she wouldn’t have to wait outside by herself in the cold. The timing was perfect. She would take the elevator down to the back entrance. She’d walk out the back door exactly when I arrived to pick her up. Our conversations took many turns as I drove through the twisty-turn-y back roads. The most delicious Sundays were when Frogtown Fire Hall held their pancake breakfasts. I can still smell the sausages and bacon.

Smells always spark memories for me. The smell of popcorn popping always brings back vivid memories of spending time volunteering in the activities hall of your building. Our local Girl Scout troop threw holiday parties, ice cream socials, and bingo nights there. We air-popped fresh popcorn for almost every event. Wonderful memories were made in the big kitchen downstairs when Grandma helped us Girl Scouts straighten up and put everything away at the end of the evening. I liked to ride up in the elevator to walk her back to her apartment. Boy, smells really do bring back those memories. There’s something about the smell of the elevator at my tax accountant’s building that takes me right back to those days I spent with Grandma.

Soon, when the virus has passed, your building will become the social hub it’s meant to be again. Try to remember the good times, the happy memories. I hope my writing to you has sparked some of your own happy memories. Remember the love of your town, your community, and your family to ease the pain under these difficult circumstances.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Diamond

Letters to Strangers Who Feel Like Family: Part 3

*Foreword: You don’t have to be a “writer” to write letters to strangers during this difficult time of the COVID:19 quarantine. I wrote these letters from the heart, not to sound fancy or important. Anyone can write letters to strangers. Any words of comfort are welcome. Please contact me if you’d like ideas or support in your own efforts to send care and love to people living alone who cannot have visitors right now.*

Hello!

You don’t know me, but you may have known my parents or grandparents. I grew up in East Brady. It’s my hometown. The building in which you live holds a special place in my heart. It’s not just a building. It’s your home, your community, your family. It was my community, too, because it provided a warm home for my grandparents.

My grandparents raised their family in a small house situated on a large lot on Kittanning Hollow Road. They were one of the first couples to move to Allegheny Hills Retirement Residence in 1982. After my Grandpa died in 1987, my Grandma Wiles continued to live in an apartment until her passing in 2002. They both live on forever, if only in my memories.

Some of my earliest memories are from my time spent at my grandparents’ home on Kittanning Hollow Road. When I was two-and-a-half-years-old, they got a puppy. I remember helping my Grandma pick which puppy to keep from the litter of Peekapoos, which is a cross between two breeds; Pekingese and Poodle. We chose a female and named her Penny. Penny didn’t make the move to Allegheny Hills Retirement Residence. She moved in with my aunt and uncle instead.

While my grandparents both loved dogs, my Grandma really loved cats. There were always outdoor cats living in the dirt-floor shed behind the house. They were great mousers. Grandma fed them store-bought cat food once a day. She’d bring them onto the porch for feeding time with a loud high-pitched call of, “Here kitty-kitty-kitty.” I learned to imitate my Grandma’s kitty-call with a perfectly matched tone.

Grandma’s favorite cats were orange and I don’t remember if she ever had a cat of a different color. Grandma nicknamed me her “Sunshine Girl” and she called my cousin “Cookie,” which I found funny because Grandma named every single cat she fed “Cookie,” too.

While Grandma stayed busy with community activities after Grandpa passed away, she definitely missed having pets. In the 1990s my Dad and aunt gave Grandma a cat as a surprise gift. Of course he was orange and white! But he wasn’t named Cookie. He was already named Buddy when he was adopted.

Buddy was a full-grown long-haired male and he quickly became king of Grandma’s apartment. He was her protector. He always sat up high, directly beside her head, at the top of her rocker-recliner and he’d take a swipe at anyone who got too close for comfort.

Buddy was king of the community, too, because Grandma walked him on a leash! Buddy and Grandma walked through the halls of the building and would even ride the elevator downstairs, to sit outside bird watching. Buddy gave Grandma companionship and sparked new friendships with fellow cat lovers.

I hope my story of Buddy and Grandma brings a flood of memories of your pets and your family. Happy memories keep us company, don’t they?

I am beyond grateful for everyone at Allegheny Hills Retirement Residence because I have so many wonderful memories from my time spent with my family there. You were, and still are, a family.

Sincerely,

Jennifer D. Diamond

Grandma’s beloved pet, Buddy, prowling his territory, AKA Grandma’s apartment. (1990s)

Letters to Strangers Who Feel Like Family: Part 2

Hello!

My grandparents were one of the first couples to move to Allegheny Hills Retirement Residence. My grandfather was disabled after suffering a heart attack and stroke. Eventually they down-sized to an accessible apartment in town. For twenty years my Grandma Wiles lived so close to me I could walk to see her. I am beyond grateful for everyone at Allegheny Hills Retirement Residence because so many wonderful memories were made there. I loved the time I spent there. You were and still are a family.

Living at Allegheny Hills Retirement Residence gave my Grandma Wiles opportunities country living did not. After my Grandpa passed away in 1987, Grandma filled her days and evenings with activities and friends in the social hall of the building. She made coffee in the mornings and cooked for community meals. Grandpa would have grumbled at Grandma spending so much time out of the apartment, but her playful, fun side flourished. She especially enjoyed the holiday gatherings.

Grandma dressed up in costumes for the Halloween parties. She got decked out in her most festive sweaters for the Christmas parties. She even dressed as “The New Year’s Baby” one year to celebrate her January first birthday on New Year’s Eve! My Grandma Wiles was a New Year’s Baby and some of my earliest memories are of spending the night of New Year’s Eve at their house out on Kittanning Hollow Road. If you’re interested in reliving this memory with me, then go to my blog post:

https://jenniferddiamondwriter.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/baby-new-years-sunshine-girl/

I hope my writing to you has sparked some of your happiest memories with your family; both blood-family and your community-family. Your family loves you and cannot wait to visit you again as soon as it’s safe to do so. Until then, know that the people of East Brady keep you in our thoughts and prayers.

Sincerely,

Jennifer (Wiles) Diamond

Grandma Wiles dressed up for Halloween, late 1980s or early 1990s.

Letters to Strangers Who Feel Like Family: Part 1

Home isn’t simply a house, a building, a structure. While we’re all sheltering in place, staying home to save lives, I’ve been inspired by generosity shown all around the world. Neighbors taking care of each other, only the definition of “neighbor” has expanded, without limits. Neighbors aren’t only the people who live near where you live. Family isn’t only blood-relations.

I grew up in a small town north of Pittsburgh along the Allegheny River. The scenery of the area draws visitors to its look-out points on either side of town high above the river. The highest point in-town, though, is a six story building we called The High Rise when it first opened in 1982. Now called Allegheny Hills Retirement Residence, the retirement and assisted living facility was home to my Grandma for twenty years, until her passing in 2002.

When the current manager of the facility reached out to community members for cards of encouragement during the COVID-19 crisis, I thought of my Grandma. I was flooded by happy memories of all the times I visited her. I felt compelled to write letters to complete strangers who seem like family. I hoped to inspire current residents of Allegheny Hills Retirement Residence to talk about or write out their own happy memories. Soon the doors to Allegheny Hills Retirement Residence will open again to visitors and neighbors, and families will be reunited face-to-face. Until then, I hope my letters brought a little sunshine during this difficult situation.

Hello! 

You do not know me, but you may have known my parents or my grandparents. I grew up in East Brady. It’s my hometown. The building in which you live holds a special place in my heart. It’s not just a building. It’s your home, your community. It was my community, too, even though I never lived in an apartment there.

My grandparents were one of the first couples to move to The High Rise, as we called it back then. My grandfather was disabled after suffering a debilitating heart attack and stroke, so the down-sizing seemed sensible. They held an auction and sold their property out on Kittanning Hollow Road.

In the fall of 1982, I was a ten-year-old-fourth-grader at East Brady Elementary School. Even though my best friends were in my class (we had only nine kids in that classroom, with Mrs. Woodle as our teacher), my favorite part of the school day was having lunch with my Grandma and Grandpa Wiles. I even missed recess in order to spend time with them, but it was the best part of my day.

The BEST PART of the best part of my day was walking into the front lobby of The High Rise. After sprinting down the steep hill to get there, I would be out of breath when the front doors of the building whooshed open. The warm air smelled like coffee and cinnamon. The sun streamed through the tall front windows. A gathering of people sat in comfortable chairs, either reading the newspaper, chatting quietly, or simply watching the hustle and bustle of East Brady pass-by.

Whatever the kind people were doing, they stopped for a moment, looked up from their tasks, and shouted, “Hey, here comes the Sunshine Girl,” “Good morning, Sunshine,” or “Give us a smile, Sunshine.”

Their thoughtful greeting was THE BEST part of my day. I felt like that theme song from the T.V. show Cheers. Everybody knew my name. I belonged. I felt loved. The gift of those memories lifts my spirits.

Your town loves you, that is why (temporarily) they cannot visit. Soon, after this virus has run its course, the front doors to your community will whoosh open again. The shouts of names and warm greetings will resume. Until then, know that the people of East Brady keep you in our thoughts and prayers.

Sincerely,

Jennifer D. Diamond

P.S. My Grandma took the photo at the back door of the building before I had to walk back up the hill to finish my school day.

1982

Baby-New-Year’s Sunshine Girl

Someone pulls the heavy afghan off and yanks the round pillow out from under my head. A whine escapes and I roll over, curl into a ball, but it’s no use. I shiver because I’m on top of the sleeping bag, not in it.

The heavy blanket is out of reach. Grandma used the knitting needles I’m not allowed to play with to make it. I counted the zig-zags, touching the dark blue, light blue, yellow and white stripes; one, two, three, four, that’s how old I am; over and over again until I fell asleep.

“Hey, it’s almost time,” my sister says as she jostles me with her foot.

“Wake up or the Tickle Monster will get you.”

The threat isn’t a real monster, but my sister’s tickling is like a cup of cold water poured onto my head.

I rub at the lines smushed into the side of my face, creases from sleeping on the crocheted pillow cover. My footy-pajamas drag across the carpet as I walk around the corner, finding everyone waiting at the kitchen door.

“My Sunshine Girl is up,” Grandma whispers after picking me up and placing me on her hip.

The big kids wear their winter coats and hold pots and pans and wooden spoons. A count-down sounds from Grandpa’s radio and we step out onto the covered porch. I hold my ears to protect them from the cold and the noise of clanging metal. Shouts of “Happy New Year” ripple across the snow. It glows blue in the moonlight.

My body chills when Grandma sets me down. Grandpa comes outside holding his rifle in the crook of his arm, barrel pointing down. All us kids scuttle behind Grandma. I cover my ears again, pressing as hard as I can, hiding my face in the back of Grandma’s long jacket. My breathing is quick and muffled inside my head.

BANG-BANG

Grandpa’s rifle echoes over the rolling fields, up and down the empty backroad cutting through the hollow, causing the neighbor’s cows to protest with cranky moos.

Once Grandpa is back inside, we scream-sing “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday, dear Grandma. Happy Birthday to you!”

Today, and every New Year’s Day, I remember how I am Baby-New-Year’s Sunshine Girl. Happy birthday in Heaven, Grandma.

Favorite Cardigan

I put on my favorite cardigan and Wikki jumps on my lap for snuggles. I am wearing my favorite cardigan in loving memory of Mister Rogers, and my mother, on this day named World Kindness Day.

Is the dog giving extra snuggles because my favorite cardigan is super soft or is it because she senses my emotional state? When I cry, my face gets all blotchy and my forehead veins pop, but it’s all good. My tears are a mixture of grief and gratitude.

How are Mister Rogers and my mother connected? Why am I glomming my grief over my mother’s passing onto that of Mister Rogers’ death? It’s because, when she was alive, my mom and I spoke on the phone regularly. Sometimes these were quick check-ins and other times we would talk on the phone for hours. On the day Mister Rogers died, Mom and I cried to each other over the phone, letting our tears soothe the collective grief we were all feeling that day. We talked for hours, sharing stories of how Mister Rogers affected so many lives with his incredible kindness and philanthropies. My own earliest memories are of watching children’s programming on PBS. In my family, we always end our calls with a quick “love you.”

I am grateful the last conversation I had with my mother was about such a kind person. I am even more grateful that I said “love you” to her on the day Mister Rogers died because she died suddenly of a heart attack the very next day.

So today I am crying while wearing my favorite cardigan, reading The World According to Mister Rogers, and snuggling with my goofy rescue dog, Wikki, who makes me laugh and smile through my tears.

Thank you to those who “loved [me] into being.”

Rest in peace

Fred Rogers: March 20, 1928 — February 27, 2003 

Barb Wiles: February 15, 1942 — February 28, 2003

Resources:

https://www.biography.com/performer/fred-rogers

https://triblive.com/lifestyles/more-lifestyles/be-like-mister-rogers-wear-your-cardigan-for-world-kindness-day/

Even if

Even if the match won’t strike.

Even if the matchstick snaps.

Even if, before the wick is lit, the broken matchstick fizzles.

Even then, keep going. Don’t stop. Sometimes it takes more than one match to get your spark flaming.

Yep, I light a candle as I sit down to write. Today I used three matchsticks. Wasteful, I know. Through journaling and writing and writing, even when I couldn’t feel the spark, I found flow. Even if you can’t feel it at first, keep going. Don’t stop. Keep striking the match until your flame ignites.

Melancholy Angle

Below is the haphazard progression of an idea that flashed while I was driving. Journaling and writing without a filter allowed the flow and transformation.

The sharp angle of the sun

The sharp angle of the sun this time of year triggers a melancholy.

The flickering flash through the tall cornstalk tassels shoots straight to my brain

The strobe triggers constriction of my arteries

Which triggers a vascular headache

Which matches the ache in my heart

The heat and humidity

The haze blotting the blue sky

The “skree” of the insects stabs my concentration, killing it slowly

The faint call of the snare drums, the crack in military time on their rims…

Marching band practice…

The steady whistle blows of the coach directing drills…

Football practice

All of it creating a dread…

The Back-to-School-Dread

————————

Melancholy Angle of the Sun

The sun seers (funny typo/play on words because this spelling of seer is a noun which means someone who has a special gift of insight or prediction) my retinas, even with the visor down, even with my sunglasses as protection. It flickers through the tasseled corn stalks, strobing, triggering a migraine.

Squiggles flash behind my closed eyelids. The “skree-skree” of late cicadas crash through my cranium. The heat and humidity push the song birds deep into the woods. It’s too hot for singing. 

The shrill whistle keeps rhythm for the warm-up drills, muffled as it wafts a quarter mile through hazy air. The military tap-tap on the rim of a snare drum snaps me from my daydream. Football season has begun. I feel for the kids who are smothered by their heavy marching band uniforms.

The melancholy angle of the sun tells my body and cues my mood that Earth is titling on her axis and, like it or not, we are in constant flux.

… and, like it or not, everything changes.

… and, like it or not, seasons are changing, summer is over, everything changes, summer has come to her end, we are spinning further away, everything fluctuates, everything comes and goes, this too must come to an end, nothing stays the same, nothing is forever.

————————

Melancholy Angle of the Sun

The sun sears my retinas, even with the visor down, even with my sunglasses. Sun-flares flicker through tasseled corn stalks, strobing, triggering pain.

Squiggles flash behind my closed eyelids. The incessant “scree” of late cicadas crashes through my cranium. Heat and humidity push the song birds deep into the woods. It’s too hot for singing. 

The melancholy angle of the sun informs my body of changes to come. Earth tilts on her axis and, like it or not, nothing is forever.

———————————

Melancholy Angle of the Sun

Streaming rays sear my retinas, even with the visor down, even with my sunglasses. Sun-flares flicker through tasseled corn stalks, strobing, triggering pain.

Squiggles flash behind my closed eyelids. The incessant “scree” of late cicadas crashes through my cranium. Heat and humidity push the song birds deep into the woods. It’s too hot for singing. 

The melancholy angle of the sun informs my body of changes to come. Earth tilts on her axis and, like it or not, nothing is forever.

——————————-

Streaming rays flicker

through tasseled corn stalks.

The melancholy angle of the

sun tells of changes to come.

Earth tilts on her axis and,

like it or not, nothing is

forever.

American Sign Language

A couple of weeks ago I posted a picture collage of me saying “Thank you” using American Sign Language, also referred to as ASL. Did you know that ASL is widely considered a distinct language? ASL is also used to support the development of speech/language skills in children who demonstrate delays. In the novel I am currently writing, ASL plays an important role in the lives of my characters. While each character may use ASL, the reasons they use it vary, and the use of ASL is not their defining or most distinctive characteristic. See the references below if you are interested in learning more about American Sign Language.

Research:

https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/american-sign-language

-In one study, researchers reported that the building of complex phrases, whether signed or spoken, engaged the same brain areas. NIH Publication No. 11-4756 (March 2019)

https://www.asha.org/policy/PS2019-00354/

-ASL is an autonomous linguistic system independent from English… American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2019). American Sign Language [Position Statement].

https://pubs.asha.org/doi/10.1044/2019_jslhr-l-18-0275

-Our results suggest that children with (Developmental Language Delay) DLD benefit from signs for word learning, regardless of their linguistic and cognitive abilities. This implies that using sign-supported speech as a means to improve the vocabulary skills of children with DLD is effective, even still at the age of 9–11 years. (June 3, 2019)

https://pubs.asha.org/doi/10.1044/2018_PERS-SIG7-2018-0005

-Studies suggest that the brains of all infants and children (including those who are deaf, who have reduced hearing, and/or who utilize hearing assistance technology) benefit from the input of multiple senses. Cognitive neuroscience and hearing science suggest a significant benefit to engaging multiple modalities for communication and increasing the amount of information that is accessible to infants and young children who are deaf or hard of hearing. (May 15, 2019)

Balancing

I recently felt caught up in the creative process. I couldn’t seem to break away from the lines I’d written. They kept repeating in my head, getting toyed around, mixed up until they fell into place, only to get jostled again. It was difficult to keep the balance between my writing life and my ‘real’ life. I took my body outside, forcing my brain to focus on something other than words. Slack-lining requires A LOT of focus for me, because ‘grace’ is not my middle name. All I can think about while balancing is NOT falling. All I can think about while not falling is BALANCING.