Monthly Archives: December 2013

Our Wedding Picture

Fourth Wedding Anniversary

Drum prüfe, wer sich ewig bindet, Ob sich das Herz zum Herzen findet! Der Wahn ist kurz, die Reu ist lang / Therefore consider, those who would marry, whether a heart finds a heart. Illusion is short, remorse is long – Schiller

On December 27, 2009, Wolfgang Michel and I got married in a small ceremony in the my mother’s church in Austin, Minnesota. We had actually been living together for 13 years at that point but like the quote says…
I had always dreamed what my wedding would be like and had very specific ideas what I would like to have but I didn’t get what I wanted. Trying to make the arrangements from 4500 miles away and the fact that my mother was already sick didn’t help matters. And I seem generally to have a problem communicating what I want to people. My husband complains about it all the time. But somehow the series of minor disasters makes it a story worth telling.

We planned the wedding at Christmas time to combine the visit with my mother’s favorite time of year, so I imagined lots of velvet and green and red. My sister-in-law – now ex – who was going to be my bridesmaid went out and bought a dress and planned what my brother should wear as the best man without asking me anything about what I wanted. It was announced to me by my mother. I didn’t feel like I could ask her to buy something else because of the cost and so I caved and we all wore black because that is what she had planned. Even though I wear a lot of black, it seemed to me to be more like a funeral than a wedding.

I found a picture of exactly the bouquet I wanted in the internet and sent it to my mother to give to the florist. When the flowers were delivered to the church, it was nothing like what I had asked for. The florist had apparently insisted on making it with full stems so that it could be used as an arrangement in a vase after the wedding. That I could hardly hold this log of flower stems and that I was getting on a plane the next day and couldn’t possibly take the “bouquet” that way on the plane was something nobody seemed to think about.

The man my mother chose to conduct the ceremony she chose because she had a crush on him. He was a nice man, a “free” minister not associated with any church but he also seemed to have problems understanding me. He kept saying, “It’s your wedding, you can have things how you want” and then refused to listen to either me or Wolfgang about how we envisioned the ceremony. It went so far that in the courthouse getting the license, we were so involved in trying to convince him not to do some silly things that I didn’t notice that my name was spelled incorrectly on the license – one “n” instead of two. When I tried later to change it back, they said it was now official and to change it I would have to pay $600 for an official name change.

At the rehearsal, even though my mother was ill, the minister kept insisting that she walk down the 50 foot aisle alone. Against my protests she also insisted on doing it in the rehearsal. At the wedding itself, she admitted it was too much for her and did as I had suggested, standing at the last pew and joining me when I got there. A lot of aggravation for nothing.

A good friend was supposed to sing at the wedding and several people, friends of mine, had talked about coming. Unfortunately, that was a Minnesota Christmas with a terrible snow storm. Planes were delayed, driving was terrible, nearly everybody had to cancelled. One of my mother’s best friends had already said she wouldn’t come which made my mother very upset and then the next door neighbor, who was very close to my mother, announced casually to Wolfgang while they were both shoveling snow that he wasn’t going to come either. I called him and begged and cried till he gave in and agreed to come. I knew it would mean a lot to her that he was there and the way things were going, we weren’t sure if maybe he would be the only guest.

In the end, it was a small ceremony, just my mother, my younger brother and his family, a couple relatives and a few of my mother’s friends. The organist played the songs that were supposed to have been sung on an out-of-tune piano, my sister-in-law strode down the aisle so fast I could hardly keep up. The minister jumbled the vows – cracking us up when Wolfgang repeated him saying, “in sickness and in hell.” He also almost forgot to let us read the vows we had written and pretty much made a mess of the thing. In the end, we survived and it was legal.

The only thing that was even remotely like what I had in mind was the dinner after the ceremony at a nice place in town. That had also been a big discussion. My mother had originally wanted fried chicken from the local supermarket served on paper plates in her living room. With the help of my sister-in-law, I got her to make a reservation at a nice place. Unfortunately the caterers had no clue really of what I had in mind and had certainly never heard of green beans almondine and so they served canned green beans with whole almonds with the skins still on. It all looked kind of like a church supper from my youth without the jello salad. The cake was good though. I had insisted on real butter frosting and this time I got what I asked for.

The few people that were there made the thing worthwhile, allowing my mother – who had pretty much given up hope that I would ever marry – to celebrate the day and be the “mother of the bride”. A year later when they found the tumors in her brain she said, “Maybe it would have been better if I had died with the heart attack in July (2009).” And I reminded her that then she wouldn’t have been at my wedding, which was already in the planning when she got sick. She kind of silently agreed that in that case it was ok.

Six months later we had a big party in our yard in Germany, nearly 100 guest, a small orchestra that my husband conducted including a piece he composed, I sang, we danced, an entertainer gave a show, and there were 6 grills cooking not to mention all the potato salad and drinks. In a way that was really my “wedding”. But I still feel like something is missing because there is a bad feeling about that first experience that I will never be able to change. I even argued with my mother about my disappointment just months before she died. Something I am not proud of and very sorry about but I just couldn’t let it go. Lesson to be learned – don’t compromise, go for what you want. Although I really believe in the power of second chances or third or even fourth chances with some things, even if you get a second chance, it isn’t quite the same.

For our anniversary, here are our vows:

The possibility I create for me and my life
is to be an opening for a fulfilled relationship
in which I create a space for
love, inspiration, personal power and freedom.
I am a stand for loving you how you are
and for being there so you can live your life in full self expression.
It is my commitment to inspire you
to bring every possibility you want to create into existence,
and to inspire you that you can have and be everything
you want to have and want to be.
This is our love.

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Christmas Elf

Christmas rituals

A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life.
– Joseph Campbell

Christmas has always been an important holiday in my family. My mother loved Christmas, loved the decorating, loved the cookie baking (although generally she didn’t like cooking) loved the Tom & Gerry parties (we were not an eggnog family), going to church on Christmas Eve. I still remember going to church on the Christmas Eve after my dad died. Perfect Minnesota weather – snow storm and 95 degrees below with the wind chill. Matched our feelings that night.
When we were kids, the Christmas tree was a big pine with long needles that stood near the front picture window. Some of the decorations my dad brought from Germany when he was stationed there, some were new. Every year something was added. After my dad died, my mother decided she didn’t want the trouble of a live tree and bought a fake one but it was still large with all of the trimmings. But as she got older, the fake trees got smaller and smaller till in the end the tree was small enough to sit on the ledge of the window.
My mother was always doing some kind of handwork, knitting, cross stitch, sewing, and Christmas was a great inspiration for her. When we kids were young, she made her own ornaments for the tree, for the walls and to set around the room. The stuffed elves with bells in their hats sat on a lamp table. There was still one left over in the cedar chest when we emptied her house and he is now sitting in my living room. The huge three part Santa Claus counted cross stitch that she made and was so proud of that she framed it went to my older brother. When we emptied her house, there were 6 giant boxes of Christmas decorations. Each one of us got something of her wonderful work to remember her by.
My mother’s Christmas cookies were really something special. She made super thin rolled sugar cookies, covered completely in powdered sugar frosting and candied sugar. They were so thin they seemed to melt in your mouth. There were always Santa Clauses with red sprinkles and Christmas trees with colored candy balls and green sprinkles. Even though they were both mostly all sugar, somehow the Santa Clauses tasted better. She also made fancy cookies shaped like acorns with caramel and crushed pecans on top. And the orange cookies with thick orange flavored powdered sugar frosting. She made Rosettes and her friends made Krumkake and they split them up. There was also a Party Mix, a peanut brittle and almond bark that were standards. She usually started baking before Thanksgiving and stored the cookies in the freezer. I used to snitch cookies out of the freezer and sneak them into my room. That is so much a part of my memory of how they taste, I freeze the Christmas cookies I bake now, too. They somehow don’t taste right otherwise.
In our house, we have developed our own Christmas. In Germany, the tradition is to bring the tree in the house on Christmas Eve and decorate it with real candles. They usually prefer fir trees with short needles and lots of space between the branches so that the candles have a lot of room. Those trees look funny to me, I am so used to the thick trees of my youth. We don’t actually get a tree any more. Like my mother, as I have gotten older I don’t feel like dealing with the mess and honestly I don’t see the sense in cutting down a tree so that I can have it in my living room. We tried a tree in a bucket but they never survived the winter or the replanting. Now I have a small one made of metal. Still makes me happy to see the decorations I have accumulated over the years hanging on it.
My husband is in charge of putting up the lights outside and putting together the swag that always goes on the door. It always looks beautiful how he does it. Usually I bake my mother’s cookies and we pig for weeks on them. This year somehow I don’t have the energy and we could both stand to lose a few pounds. Maybe I’ll make a few batches on the weekend just for old time sake.
On Christmas Eve we usually watch movies and I drink Tom & Jerrys – my husband has never gotten used to the super sweet taste so he stays with beer and whisky. The German tradition on Christmas Eve is to eat wieners and potato salad. Go figure. Our tradition is to have baked breaded camembert and Pillsbury rolls. Very low cal. Germans celebrate Christmas over two days so we divide them up and each of us is responsible for the cooking for the entire day. We each try to do something special and exotic. Haven’t decided on the menus for this year yet but I am sure they will be delicious. We are both looking forward to the down time, making a special Christmas time and bringing the year to a close.

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Dad dropping me off at collegeDad dropping me off at college

Thirty years ago today

God’s finger touched him and he slept. – Tennyson

On December 14, 1983 my father died of lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. I wasn’t home. I had been there for several weeks and it seemed he had stabilized so I left to do an audition. Two days later he was gone. This is how I remember him.

My dad was a quiet guy. Didn’t talk much. His thing was doing. He didn’t get angry much but when he was you needed to get out of the way. Something I have inherited. His face was pretty stern looking, at least later in life. I will never forget the look on his face when he drove by me as I was dragging main with my friends when I was supposed to be at the movies. White heat! And the couple boyfriends I brought home always said, “Your dad hates me, I can tell!” And I would always say, “He always looks like that”.

He was a mechanic by trade and was really good with his hands. At home, he made beautiful, simple things out of wood. If he had been born 20 years later he might have been a furniture maker. He always seeemed like an artist to me. But life made him a mechanic in the local meat packing plant. He was really good with cars and loved to tinker on them on Saturday afternoons. I used to ask him about what he was doing while he worked. “Dad, what is this?” “A carburetor.” Silence. Nothing more. No explanation. He just kept working. All the cars he ever had – at least until his kids started driving – were always in tip top shape. In the 70s, he finally sold an old 50s Chevy station wagon that looked like it was brand new and nearly cried as he watched a young kid in town drive it into the ground in less than a year.

One of my favorite memories is when he was fixing the heel of one of my shoes – he could fix anything – and we were talking about how I got blisters from all of my shoes, I think I was 16 at the time, and he said, “You and your mother – pointed heels and pointed heads!” My dad was always good for a euphemistic phrase. Swear words didn’t come out of his mouth that I remember but the phrases he used were great – colder than a well digger’s butt, hotter than a popcorn fart. You get the picture.

At parties or events, my father used to stand at the side and watch. Drove my mother nuts. She wanted to go and do. He tended to want to stay home. On the other hand, he loved to dance. I will never forget seeing my parents dance at the wedding of my dad’s youngest brother. It was amazing to me to see the energy and joy that flowed out from my father. At the resort we went to nearly every summer, my friends told me my dad looked like a movie star. When my parents came to hear me sing my final recital in college, my dad stood at the side of the reception with his hand in his pocket. My voice teacher at the time was also 6′ 4″, a great man and teacher, and he siddled up to my dad and they stood there together exchanging just a few words but a smile krept across my dad’s face. I will always be grateful to Ken Smith for doing that, may he rest in peace.

My parents had their problems over the years but they always found ways to keep finding each other. Back then CB radios were all the rage and that hobby really made a quite difference in their lives. The radio appealed to my father’s technical side and the social life associated with it appealed to my mother. They bought a motorhome and started travelling to events. That was also perfect because they were taking “home” with them. “High Pockets” and “Low Pockets” were their CB nicknames – my dad being 6′ 4″ and my mother 5′ 6″ – and I made them a design for a business card. Things were good in 1983.

His illness seemed to come on suddenly. My parents had recently been on a cruise to Hawaii – the first cruise they had ever taken, when he collapsed in the kitchen in end of September 1983. The tests showed a large tumor in his lung and 5 tumors in his brain. Radiation therapy was recommended. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and went back for a couple of days. I remember my dad sitting there looking shell-shocked and my mother talking about fighting it. But I knew my dad was terribly frightened of cancer. Both of his parents had died of it and when my mother had kidney cancer 8 years before – which was operated successfully and she outlived 35 years – my father broke down crying in the car with me and sobbed, “Maybe it would have been better if we hadn’t known.” I went back to Washington and promptly totalled my car. One of the last things he did before he couldn’t do anything anymore was to buy my mother a new car and promise me her old one. That was what he felt was important.

When I would call, my mother would always say, “As good as can be expected.” What my younger brother told me later was the his horror at having to carry the man we all felt was the strongest in the world. They told me very little of how it was with the treatments but after 6 weeks the diagnoses was “terminal” and I took a leave from my job and went back to be with him.

I didn’t do much. Visited him in the morning. Went home to practice while my mother was there after work. Went back for a couple of hours in the evening. He laid there with his eyes closed most of the time. The pain must have been tremendous. At Thanksgiving time he seemed alot better and it was hard for us and the visitors who came to believe that there was no hope of recovery. And he was antsy to get out of bed. But by then he was too weak to move and after a couple of days he relapsed into sleeping most of the time. One time he seemed to me that he was choking and I panicked and yelled, “Nurse!”. His eyes flew open and he growled, “What are you screaming about!” I couldn’t believe it. But he hardly spoke otherwise.

I had an audition scheduled in New York for middle December 1983 and my family encouraged me to go. It seemed to us all that he was going to hang in there for a while. So I packed my car, my mother’s old car that he had given me, and stopped at the hospital on my way out of town. I held his hand and said, “Daddy, I will love you all my life.” And I left.
Three days later he was gone.

I did the audtion, sobbing. Thankfully someone I knew was on the jury and could explain what had happened but I shouldn’t have been there. Then I flew home. We had a visitation and my brother picked me up at the airport and drove me right to the funeral home. Painted and cold in that box, he didn’t look at all like himself. But what meant a lot to me were all the people who expressed their condolences. We lived in a medium sized town but it seemed like everybody new Bob Johannsen and knew to respect him. These things are important when you lose someone.

His children are now all older than he was when he died. We’ve made it this far. Funny how young this feels now that I am here. My mother died two years ago, still lamenting that he left her alone, although she had a good life because of the precautions he took to give her financial security. And even after all these years, I still miss him. I still talk to him in my head. I still see his graceful movement and stellar blue eyes. Daddy, I will love you all my life.

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Alja chooses the wayAlja chooses the way

I thought I would write a little

I have been thinking about starting a blog for a long time. Suddenly today was the day. I guess you get to a certain age and you want to share something about how you see the world, what has happened to you, what you are feeling and the internet makes all that possible. We’ll see what happens.

The photo in the background of the page is of the wonderful woods near our house. It is one of the great gifts of living where we do – in a small village outside of Frankfurt, Germany – this nearness to nature. You walk out the door and the woods starts 50 feet away. It is commercially forested but they avoid clear cutting and so you hardly notice when they cut trees down. Just the sound of sawing in the woods. We heat our house with wood nearly exclusively. It makes a warm, wonderful heat that I miss when we rely on the gas heater that backs up the wood burning stove. So far my husband cuts the wood himself. At the moment, there is so much wood in our yard, it looks like we have a business selling it!

The photo attached to this post is of our dog, the “wild noodle”, Alja (pronounced A-lee-a). She loves walking in the woods even more than I do. She is a Hungarian sheepdog. Actually, she is a herd protection dog, which means she is always looking for danger and it also means that she is very territorial. To her, her territory extends as far as the eye can see. Makes me feel safe in the house but doesn’t make us well loved in the neighborhood. She is, however, amazingly sweet and still like a puppy in many ways. It is a joy having her in our lives.

Now that I  am sitting here and want to write, I can’t think of all the things I have thought about before. Well, you got to start somewhere. And that was today.

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