In loving memory of my mother-in-law "Mama Honey" Diane Warner
It was December 1980 and my boyfriend Kevin and I had been dating a little over a month when he was having dinner with his family at a Japanese restaurant in Aptos during our Christmas break from UC Davis. One of his siblings asked either what my last name was or how to spell it (it was Preimsberger) when his mother piped up that it didn't matter..."It's going to be Warner," she said, "I see it in the tea leaves."
She had yet to lay eyes on me, but she was right. Kevin and I married in August 1982.
I remember announcing our engagement on New Year's Day 1982: Kevin and I drove from Davis to San Jose to find his mom in the library at their big house they dubbed The Mansion, visiting with a cousin—family and friends were always stopping by for a visit—I don't remember who else was there, but I do remember how happy his mom was for us and to celebrate, she made some calls and rounded up some of her kids and a few other relatives who lived nearby and sent Kevin and me to Taco Bell to pick up dinner.
We came back with bags of tacos and burritos and ate them in the formal dining room at the large table topped with a beautiful crocheted lace tablecloth, toasting with glasses of Pepsi. I was instantly welcomed into this big family—if Kevin loved me, then they loved me.
That gift of belonging is one of the most precious gifts I've received in my life, a gift that my mother-in-law extended to me and everyone who graced her doors.
Any friend of anyone in her family, or any friend of a family friend, was a friend of hers. Friends and relatives could stop by my mother-in-law's anytime. No need to call first. And any occasion was a cause for celebration. No need for a fancy menu, or to send out invitations. No need to plan in advance or even need to clean if pressed for time—you could just pile everything in a corner and drape a sheet over it. I used her trick many times when my kids were little, and it was the perfect decor for Halloween parties!
On the other hand, she especially loved making things beautiful, and decorating for holidays by filling the table with candles and crystals or acorns and pinecones, and when I had the privilege of hosting Thanksgiving dinners with my husband at our house, my mother-in-law—who’d been dubbed “Mama Honey” by our oldest child—was the first to lend a hand and to compliment my arrangements, a collection of my children’s school craft projects I saved and reused.
My mother-in-law had a huge oak dining table custom built for her beach house in the early 1980s that sat more than a dozen, and it traveled with her after she moved from there. In the past 35 years I've had the privilege to gather around that table time and time again, with family and friends and strangers who became friends; some of who are no longer living (but feasting with Mama Honey in the next life I hope).
Her generosity was genuine and never grudging. Her door and heart were always open, and there was always room for another person at the table, even when they showed up unannounced on holidays after the meal had begun. A true model I’ve tried to emulate—not always successfully.
That big oak table got overrun in the past year or so when my mother-in-law wasn't able to get around, even in her apartment. As she began to feel better, the clutter began to bother her more, and I made it a goal to clear it off for her—sorting, filing, and recycling the items it held—in July as she was recovering from a three-week hospital stay. And just in time for the last day of our visit, we gathered round that beautiful table for what would be Mama Honey’s last supper with extended family. There were three children, one grandchild, several in-laws and a few friends gathered for deli chicken and pre-made potato salad, bagged green salad, steak, watermelon, and iced tea. Our menu unpretentious as she'd taught us.
There was also a young man most of us were meeting for the first time; a young man who Mama Honey had predicted her granddaughter (my daughter) would marry weeks before she even met him.... Time will tell, but based on my experience, she’s always right about that sort of thing.
Prayer in the Time of Evil
When evil shatters the lives
of our brothers and sisters
and smashes our illusions of inclusivity,
and safety, when the shards
splintering our nation
pierce our hearts--
grant us solace in our weeping
and the courage to dream
and speak and act for peace.
When violence and hatred
bombard our senses
spewing lies and hopelessness--
free us from demonizing
our enemies as we voice
sharp and needed words
that name our own complicity
while we seek justice, equality
and compassion for those
who carry the weight
of oppression and evil.
Let us not be undone
by the unconsciousness of fear
and hatred, nor give into
powerlessness and despair--
Let us reach for each other
and step together into
the unfolding future
holding fast to love.
I’ve been up in the air a lot these days, uncertain about many things, caught in worry and anxiety over finances, deadlines come and gone, and the precarious health of those I love. And it’s been taking to the air that has grounded me—not because I’ve gone to exotic locations, or taken a vacation (my plane trips have delivered me to the doors of loved ones in need), but because aloft, the smallness of my life is put into rightful perspective.
I was in the air a few days ago, on my 56th birthday, flying from Seattle to San Jose. Instead of my usual “volcano tour” along the Cascade Range, I sat facing the west, and found an entirely new perspective as the plane arced over Southern Puget Sound.
I saw the whole of the Key Peninsula—where I currently live, and then miles of the Hood Canal. I spied the fingers of the Skokomish River emptying into the Canal’s Great Bend, pinpointing the strip where my next live-in project house is perched along the shore waiting.
We winged past Olympia and soared over the Coast Ranges for hundreds of miles, the lip of the land along the sea always in sight, and the blues of the water and sky bleeding and blurring into the horizon.
Ribbons of river wended through mountains and valleys, and by some trick of late afternoon light, the metallic reflection of our plane acted like Tinker Bell’s wand, turning the water below us into flowing silver solder as we passed. I was mesmerized by the magic of it.
My husband met me at the airport and took me to dinner.
“Do you have any birthday wisdom from your 56 years on Earth?” he asked.
“Always get a window seat,” I answered.
There is more to it than that. You can’t simply sit by the window, you have to open the shade and look outside, and not just look, but look mindfully, paying attention to what is in view—without being distracted by the inflight magazine or preoccupied with schedules.
I gazed out the window, focused on the mountains, sky, sea, and settlements appearing and disappearing below me. The landscape unfolding sparked curiosity and wonder. My troubles slipped from mind, as I contemplated only what I could see in the present moment. Hurtling at 38,000 feet, covering 900 miles in less than two hours—that itself was miraculous enough, but to travel through clear skies, witness to such glory—gratitude filled my soul.
As we began our descent over the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, narrow roads snaking along the ridges came into view. Dwellings straddled the spines and slopes along the San Andreas Fault. Whether humans are brave or foolish for building homes and living lives on the sides of mountains that will tremble and slide I saw our vulnerability as universal: how precariously all of us are perched as we cling to life.
The plane travelled further south, toward Morgan Hill, then looped north for our landing in San Jose, and the Santa Clara Valley filled my view. This valley, familiar as Silicon Valley to millions, was once called the Valley of Heart’s Delight. It is the place where my husband, and his mother, and her family back five generations, was born and raised. Houses and high-rises have long since replaced orchards and farms; commercial towers and hi-tech campuses fill the valley from edge to edge, and in each of those buildings: people.
All those precious lives, too many for me to even comprehend, living and breathing, hoping and despairing, side-by-side in this one place, held and known by the same force that created the shifting tectonic plates—that too, is nothing short of miraculous.
Too soon we touched down, the world shrinking to the confines of the plane as we taxied toward the gate with the restless rustle of passengers reaching for cell phones, tethering back to daily concerns. Seatbelts snapped open, overheard bins unlatched, the aisle crowded with bodies. How quickly the liminal space of flight of evaporated, people taking leave of each other, and the pilots and crew who had borne us between heaven and earth, defying time and gravity.
In those moments of reentry, I looked at the faces around me, feeling as though returning to my seat after receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. I recognized my fellow travelers as family, and felt such tender love toward them, toward all who walk and breathe and inhabit the earth, that the walls protecting my heart cracked and in that exposure, I experienced just a glimpse of God’s expansive love for us.
Then it was my turn to deplane. I hoisted my backpack and my heart reassembled, because I don’t know how to survive in that egoless split-open place for long. I trod along the jet-way, hoping and praying that a fissure would remain along the fault line of my heart, one that will gleam like liquid silver in the light.
Word of Adam West’s death came pinging to my cell phone in the form of Breaking News from the Seattle Times Saturday morning, which seemed odd compared to other breaking news of my week: the House vote to repeal Dodd-Frank bank and lending safeguards, former FBI Director Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the daily texts, calls, and emails from my husband reporting on his hospitalized mother who, plagued with congestive heart failure and a severe infection, has skirted back from the brink of death once again.
I wondered if somehow the Seattle Times knew about my childhood infatuation with Adam West. I was barely in elementary school when Batman ran on network television from 1966-68, and as he zipped around in the Batmobile making Gotham safe from the likes of The Joker, The Riddler, and Catwoman, my father drove a patrol car through South Central Los Angeles through the night.
My father was a deputy with a badge and gun, tall, strong, and even more handsome than Batman; but it was Adam West, the man behind the mask, who I wanted to rescue me.
He might still be wearing his Batman costume, or might just be dressed like Bruce Wayne—either way he’d slow at the sight of my pink stucco house with its bougainvillea covered roof, and see me there, a skinny seven-year-old with swimming-pool-bleached hair, cinnamon candy in my mouth, and wave. At his signal, I would leap from the porch, hop into his convertible, and we’d be off down Pacific Coast Highway headed for the Batcave.
My fantasy never went so far as marriage to Adam West, Bruce Wayne, or Batman, and I never dreamed of booting Robin to become a sidekick. It was enough simply to speed away from home.
Though there were a dozen kids in my neighborhood and we invented nearly as many group games, I performed my Adam West ritual solo. No one but me seemed interested in being saved.
At six my life was calm and happy. The bougainvillea that damaged our roof and wept through our ceiling with each rain had yet to be chopped down to an ugly stump. My father had yet to leave our family. And I had yet to become a latchkey kid left alone too many nights, afraid and bickering with my little sister.
But maybe trouble was already lurking and maybe I was going to need help when it finally came into view. I hadn’t been to church enough to know there was a well-known savior I could call on, so I turned to pop culture. I could’ve wished for Batman himself, or even Bruce Wayne, who could drive into the Batcave a rich do-gooder and come out a superhero.
Instead, I wished for an actor in a company car.
My grappling hooks have never been flung around anything larger than emotional crises (often of my own making), and my archenemies, once I’ve unmasked them, have never been more dangerous than my own fears and doubts, so it seems to me now, fifty years later, that maybe I was onto something, waiting for an actor to cruise by.
For all his fame, Adam West was an ordinary and flawed man, a man who in 1966, I would learn from Wikipedia, was between a short-lived second marriage and a third that would last the rest of his life, just like my father, who rose to the top rank in law enforcement before retiring, and has been married now for 40 years. He and my stepmother have battled half-a-dozen cancers between them, each episode diminishing their bodies but strengthening their love and commitment.
“Beloved father, husband, grandfather, and great-grandfather,” the West family wrote without mention of Mr. West’s Batman role in their announcement of his death. “There are no words to describe how much we’ll miss him…. Hug your loved ones today.”
My husband, a former high-tech exec, has kept vigil in his mother’s hospital room for over a week now, holding her hand, easing her panic when breath eludes, checking on her throughout the night, prodding the doctors and nurses for better care until her recovery, for now, seems assured.
Another riddle solved, another crisis averted.
I haven’t always valued doing and fixing, especially when it felt as though my feelings were trampled in the process. But I’ve come to understand the necessity of these gifts of action, and their place alongside—rather than instead of—the gifts of contemplation.
And as Father’s Day approaches, I embrace those energetic get-it-done gifts, and their givers:
Adam West, my father, my husband.
Each of these men has taught me something about choosing fluidity over static identity in the course of a lifetime, about how the essential self exists apart from circumstances, career, or accomplishments. They’ve demonstrated doing what you love even in anonymity, remembering, but not longing for the days when the spotlight shone bright upon them. They’ve shown me the rightness of fighting for another’s dignity, even more than for your own desires, and about keeping your sense of humor when life turns out differently from the script you thought you were supposed to follow.
So let us love and laugh, learn and grow, fail and succeed together. When we're in trouble, let's come to our own rescue when we can, and accept help from others when we can't, becoming, either way, real-life heroes in our own small stories.
I am a writer who, in December 2011, fortified by a new MFA, empty nest, and changes in my husband's employment, relocated from my native California to Washington state to see what would unfold next.