Mom and dad missing from the Thanksgiving dinner table

by Barbara L. Sherf

Flourtown resident Barbara L. Sherf is surrounded by her now-deceased parents, Barbara A. Sherf and Charles Sherf. The bride was 28 in this wedding photo taken by Lindelle Photographers 26 years ago.

Flourtown resident Barbara L. Sherf is surrounded by her now-deceased parents, Barbara A. Sherf and Charles Sherf. The bride was 28 in this wedding photo taken by Lindelle Photographers 26 years ago.

We just celebrated our first Thanksgiving without both mom and dad. My father would have been 89 on the Sunday after the holiday. Eighteen months ago our beloved mother passed away at 79.

A two-time breast cancer survivor, Barbara A. Sherf succumbed to the sepsis infection after a pacemaker was placed in her weakened and weary body. If there is one word that sums up my mother it is resilient.

At the age of 9, she was part of  her beloved Aunt Bina’s wedding party in Luzerne, PA. As the respected schoolteacher by the name of Albina Bagonis got off a bus, she whispered to a young student to cover her legs if she went down. On the last step the 35-year-old woman fell to the ground and died from what was believed to be a sudden massive heart attack. My mother, an only child, never fully recovered from the sudden loss of a woman who was more like a sister to her.

Fast forward to my mother as a new bride at 19. During her first pregnancy, the doctor could not detect a heartbeat at 6 months, and yet my mother had to carry that baby boy to full-term and deliver the child. He was named after my father, Charles, and was baptized and buried. They had four more children, and we didn’t really talk much about baby Charles until he appeared on their deathbeds.

Mom spent one hellacious night in a rehab facility fighting the infection and became delusional before she was sent back to the hospital for stronger antibiotics and pain medication. I was with her. As she lay there, she kept looking at the ceiling, and I said, “Mom, what are you looking at?”

She said, “Charles.”

Now my parents had been married for 22 years but were divorced for more than 30 years. They hadn’t seen each other in a dozen or more years, and my father was in the Veterans’ Home in Vineland with progressive dementia. So I asked my mother if she was referring to our father, her former husband, Charles, who was always known as Charlie.

She said, “No, it’s my baby Charles. He’s come to take me dancing.”

Mom, who was a force, did not want to die in the hospital, so she returned to her home in Somers Point, New Jersey, on hospice. I would tell her to put the blue dress that she wore at my wedding on and that it was time for her to go dancing with baby Charles, and I believe she is doing that.

As the funeral home was pulling away with her body, I received a call from the staff at the Veterans’ Home.  “Your dad is all agitated, and we can’t understand why. Should we medicate him?” asked Dr. Carlitto Lim.  When I told them my mother had just passed away, they expressed sympathy and said they often got this kind of behavior with couples who were still connected.

Flip forward to Sunday, Oct. 23, when I was called again to Vineland as my father had been hospitalized for heart and respiratory issues. I packed one overnight bag and spent the week there advocating for him. We had one really special day together. On Monday my father looked up at me with his big blue eyes and said “Barbie.” He hasn’t called me that in some time. I had a copy of the book we had written together about our horseback riding experiences out of Monastery Stables in Mt. Airy and exploring the Wissahickon Valley, along with his stories as a teen cowboy riding at Totem Ranch, TV personality Sally Starr’s Ranch and even Cowtown Rodeo. The book was titled “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived…Not Preached” for a reason. Despite being an altar boy and going to Catholic elementary school at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Maple Shade, New Jersey, my father’s idea of church was taking sunrise and sunset rides and being kind to people.

On that good Monday, I read the book over and over to my father, and we even watched his video. I told him that my community at the Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting, which I attend, was keeping him “in the light” as he took this final ride.  He asked, “How is church?” So I turned on the flat screen TV and found the Catholic Channel and watched church in high def. When I turned the channel off, he asked me how the baby was. They had been talking about “Baby Jesus” during the sermon and the Mass, so I said, “Whom do you mean, Jesus?” He shook his head no. I sat there, and the lightbulb went off.

“Do you mean baby Charles?”

He nodded yes.

I looked my dad in the eyes and said, “Dad, I’ve had you for 54 years of my life. As a toddler you taught me to ride horses, taught me right from wrong and showed me how to tell a good story. Now it’s time for you to be with baby Charles.”

I believe my father is now riding around Colestown Cemetery in Cherry Hill with his son in his lap, his best friend Charlie Pfluger next to him, and maybe even Sally Starr bringing up the rear.

I’ve received so many condolence cards, but there is a special one from fellow horse lover Susan Landers of Mt. Airy. It has a picture of a horse on it, similar to my father’s first horse, and the text says: “ Not gone … just waiting patiently at the end of the trail.”

Thank you, baby Charles, for guiding them home.

Barbara Sherf will be telling this story in person at the Saturday, Dec. 3, Patchwork Storytellers Guild Open Story Swap at 1 p.m. at the Chestnut Hill Library in the room at the rear. Go to www.patchworkstorytellers.org for more information about the group.

ORIGINAL SOURCE: chestnuthilllocal.com

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Charles Sherf

sherfCowtown Rodeo Cowboy, book author, Korean War veteran and Maple Shade, New Jersey, native Charles Sherf passed away on October 27 in Vineland, New Jersey, one month shy of his 89th Birthday.

In 2007 Mr. Sherf’s daughter, Barbara Sherf, wrote a guest column for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the stories her father would tell while the pair rode in Fairmount Park, reliving his teen years spent riding in Cowtown and other local rodeos. He told of earning more on a Saturday night for staying on a bull for eight seconds than he made during the week picking tomatoes and delivering them from Maple Shade by horse and buggy to Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden.

The notoriety after the column appeared sparked the pair to co-author a book incorporating his stories and her riding experiences titled “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived…Not Preached.”
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While Mr. Sherf rode horses until the age of 80, he gave up his rodeo riding when he enlisted in US Army. Following the war he was offered an apprenticeship at the Philadelphia Bulletin, where he worked in the composing room for 33 years before the newspaper closed.

Mr. Sherf was married to Philadelphia resident Barbara A. Smith, and the couple lived and raised four children in Philadelphia and Bucks County for 22 years raising their four children.

He then spent more than 20 years with Cherry Hill resident Irene Ankwicz traveling, golfing, riding horses and dancing together until he was admitted three years ago to the Veterans’ Memorial Home in Vineland. He was also known throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey as he sold items at local flea markets.

He is pre-deceased by his sister, Helen O’Donnell, and brother, Robert Sherf. He is survived by his brother, Thomas Sherf, and sister, Lorraine Stepanavage, his companion, Irene Ankwicz, his children, Karen Jones (husband, David), Patrice Hilferty, Barbara Sherf (husband, Brad Shapiro) and Kevin Sherf; grandchildren, Rebecca & Andrew Jones, Kaylynn, Evan and Kyle Hilferty; and one great-grandson, Bennett Hilferty. Five nieces and four nephews also survive him.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, 236 East Main Street in Maple Shade, New Jersey, on Saturday, November 19, at 10:30 a.m.

A Celebration of Life will be held on Sunday, November 13, following the 4:30 p.m. viewing of the Skyspace at the Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting at 20 East Mermaid Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19118. Skyspace is open to the public, so guests are asked to pre-register at chestnuthillskyspace.org. In inclement weather, the light show in the Skyspace will revolve for 15 minutes and the service will start. If the Skyspace is opened to the sky, please wear weather appropriate clothing.

Memorial donations may be made to the Maple Shade Historical Society 15 N. Holly Drive, Maple Shade, NJ 08052 or the Wounded Warrior Project www.woundedwarriorproject.org or P.O. Box 758517 Topeka Kansas 66675.

Mr. Sherf’s legacy video can be seen at http://communicationspro.com/workshops/capture-life- stories/

The book is being updated with Mr. Sherf’s final chapter and will be available through the Maple Shade Historical Society or e-mail CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.

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The Gift of a Broken Toe by Barbara L. Sherf

An unexpected gift came my way for the long Labor Day weekend in the form of a broken toe. Bummer, one might think, but for me it was a blessing to take a break from my ‘to do’ lists and labors.
The accident happened Wednesday night as I stumbled into the kitchen to get some water in the middle of the night. Normally I keep water by the bed, but the well had run dry.
There is one step in the main living area of our contemporary home. It’s been there since I moved in to the former art studio in1988. It has a two-inch think piece of slate on top of it. It is the only step from the kitchen back to the bedroom and I hit it. Hard.
Our gentle-natured golden retriever barked uncontrollably until he realized it was me crying out a few choice words. Hubby ran into the hallway thinking a burglar had broken in. I don’t think any of us got back to sleep. I know I didn’t.
I looked at my ‘to do’ list on Thursday morning as the toe next to my big toe was turning brilliant colors and simply laughed out loud.
Going to the gym, taking a long dog walk in the park, window washing and ridding our home of cobwebs for a Tuesday evening party were all crossed off.
Instead, I sat with our sweet dog, Tucker, by my chair with feet up on the ottoman in the living room I now realize I barely live in. Instead of being angry with myself, I turned my journal, listened to some Ted Talks and NPR podcasts, daydreamed and vegetated.
With a Birthday Party looming on September 6 for our beloved neighbor Dr. Thomas A. Fitzpatrick, I pulled out the paper plates and plastic utensils and decorated a bit to stretch my legs. That was it. I doubted my party-goers would judge me on a few cobwebs and dirty windows, and if they did, as the saying goes, “life is too short.”
On Saturday, I waltzed into my sisters’ home for her husband’s 60th surprise party, found a comfortable chair and iced while guests came to me instead of helping her in the kitchen and keeping drinks topped off. My brother brought me ice for the toe. My sister brought me a glass of wine. My niece made me a plate of food. It was lovely.
As I limped into Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting on Sunday I told members of the Hospitality Committee that I would have to sit out helping with the monthly community luncheon. Instead, I sat at a table and chatted with a first-time visitor who just moved to Chestnut Hill from New Jersey and listened to her story.
On Monday, I went with my husband and dog to the park and sat on a bench and just enjoyed the day while they walked. I did not bring a book or phone. I just enjoyed the gorgeous weather and watched park users taking a break from their labors.
Because of this mishap, I have actually gone into my Google calendar and scheduled in mental health breaks throughout the day and week in an attempt to embrace this gift I had been given in the form of a broken toe.

When not icing her toe, Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf tells the stories of business owners, non-profits and retirees. She can be reached at Barb@CommunicationsPro.com or 215.990.9317.

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Have a ________ New Year

By Barbara L. Sherf

It’s ironic that as a wordsmith, I have been struggling for weeks to come up with a word that might replace the Happy in the slogan that seems to absentmindedly roll off the lips of friends, colleagues and well meaning strangers:  “Happy New Year.”

Don’t get me wrong, I do wish all of you a “Happy New Year,” however we all know that the year will be filled with joys and sorrows.  That’s life.  Having been trained as a journalist, it’s become second nature  for me to see both sides, and I feel fortunate that I fall into the category of ‘realist.’

So reality slapped me in the face early in 2016, despite a receptionists cheerful refrain of “Happy New Year” that came rolling off her sparkly pink glossy lips at the Madden Animal Hospital in Ambler on January 3rd.

Waiting for the new credit card cycle to roll around, my husband and I took our sweet golden retriever back to the Victorian home where Dr. Madden lives and works to secure a second set of x-rays in the hopes of determining whether a growth on Tucker’s lung had increased in size.   As we were ushered into the exam room and sat silently waiting, I wondered if the bubbly woman behind the desk had any clue that we were not there for a regular check up.  If she was clueless, then I would let the “Happy New Year” refrain go, but if she clued in, then I wanted to reach across the counter and place my hands around her neck if she came close to spewing that refrain to the next pet owner.  Clearly I was on edge and so I turned my attention to working on this puzzle of a term: “Happy New Year.”

Following the x-rays and in his classic Irish brogue, this  devoted vet who had treated our two previous golden rescues and watched as they passed over the Rainbow Bridge, Dr. Madden came in with one of those good news/bad news scenarios (another phrase I could do without),

“The bad news is it’s grown by 20 percent in six weeks.  The good news is that it’s still encapsulated and very much operable,” he told us, patiently answering our questions and handing us the name and number of a surgeon, before sending us on our way with a off with feeble “Happy New Year.”

“There has got to be a better term,” I thought, rolling my eyes in amazement.

In retrospect, the search for the new word started on New Year’s Eve, with my first stop at the Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting to view the Skyspace installation.  The greeter, who knew of the year I had had, wished me a “Happy New Year. “  Following 2015 the triple whammy deaths of Uncle Norman, my Mother, and Aunt Lil, I would have been very happy with the refrain: Have a Mellow New Year; one that was not filled with highs and lows but just a ‘steady as she goes’ kind of year.

After musing about this while looking up at the indescribable light show change the colors of the sky, I proceeded to Erdenheim, where friends were having a “Happy New Year’s Eve” party complete with party hats, banners and horns.

When friends of these friends walked through the door to shouts of “Happy New Year,” I truly wanted to gag.   Perhaps the word Happier New Year might have been more appropriate, or even Healthier New Year, as we all had whispered about the tales of woe that this couple had experienced.

Linda, in her early 60s, had been diagnosed in 2015 with colon cancer, and while on the operating room table, Linda’s mother passed away.  While recovering from the fairly invasive surgery, Linda’s husband, Steve, got word that he had a tumor on his brain that needed to come out in January.  Happy New Year?  Really?  As the alcohol set in and the shouts of “Happy New Year” freely flowed, I feigned a headache and left the party early, stopping at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill to walk the labyrinth.  While making my way around the circular maze, I stopped in the center to continue my deliberation on THE WORD issue.  Perhaps in this holy place my muse would come deliver the proper word.  She did not.   Did I leave her back at the party?

Once safely home with our 90-pound dog on the couch, I picked up my 5-year-old laptop and started searching for a word to replace “Happy” on the thesaurus tool.

The computer was slow to startup and thoughts of getting a new MacBook Air for my Birthday in March vanished in a haze as the reality of a dog ultrasound and possible surgery set in; not that I’m complaining.  Dog trumps new computer any day. Finally the ‘happy’ synonyms came up: content, lucky.  Hmmm.  Have a Contented New Year?  Have a Lucky New Year?  I think not.   Going further down the list, I ticked them off aloud while Tucker’s big brown eyes stared back at me;   pleased, glad, joyful, cheerful, blissful, exultant, ecstatic, delighted, cheery, jovial.

Nope.  Nada.  Zip. Not hitting the mark.  I put the computer and thinking cap aside to watch the ball drop on TV.  “Happy New Year!”

The following Monday, while meditating in the Resiliency Center in Flourtown, my mind (as it often does) wandered back to this puzzle.  And then it hit me:  Have a Resilient New Year.

Now granted, it doesn’t roll off the lips like the tried (but tired) and true “Happy New Year,” but my intention in all of this is to acknowledge that, for want of a better term, Compost Happens.  And when we are thick in the middle of that pile of doo doo with terrorist attacks, the deadly combo of untreated mental illness and illegal guns, stocks plunging, health issues arising in pets and people, and Seasonal Affective Disorder setting in, wishing one  “A Resilient New Year” seemed more appropriate.  No?

The following Sunday, as I made my way to sit with Friends at the Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting, I tried out my new slogan on a greeter  “Have a Resilient New Year,” I said.  This man looked at me quizzically for a moment, thought about it, and replied, “Okay, thanks.  I guess we can all use resiliency in our lives.”

As various messages came through during the meeting regarding gratitude, I thought perhaps incorporating gratitude into my new New Year slogan might be nice as well.  And as I was rolling that around in my mind, the message developer in me realized that instead of limiting myself  to a three-word catchphrase, I could reach into the language of love using many words as I wanted and needed to properly express myself.  There were no rules like the 140 character limit on Twitter, rules that drove me to become a ‘Twitter Quitter’ years ago.

So sit back, fasten your seat belts, and listen to the imaginary drum roll, please:

My wish for you is a New Year filled with gratitude, resiliency, prosperity, relatively good health, peace, joy, contentedness and love for yourself and each other.

Amen.
Author of “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived…Not Preached,” Barbara Sherf lives and writes in Flourtown. Barb@CommunicationsPro.com.  Please visit her Facebook page for updates on Tucker at http://www.facebook.com/BarbaraSherf.

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Love Lies To My Father

By Barbara L. Sherf

Lies to my father come tumbling out of my mouth with increasing frequency these days.  I call them “love lies.”

You see, at 87, Dad has dementia and is often confused about where he is and why.

On my visits to the Veteran’s Home in Vineland, New Jersey, where he is being treated with dignity and respect, the lies roll off my lips in rapid succession.

Dad opens a Christmas card from me with an illustration depicting two horses and a sleigh pulling a pair of passengers.

“This looks familiar,” he says.  I marvel as I had recovered the cards along with his personal papers nearly three years ago, before getting him settled into the home.

“I never liked them because of the way the horses hoof is bent at an awkward angle. It isn’t right,“ he says pointing to the disfigured joint.  I look closer and indeed, it is not right.

There is a glimmer and a connection before he starts with the questions and the  “love lies” start rolling.

“How long am I staying here?” he asks.

“Until you’re better.  They are taking good care of you here and this is where you need to be.”

“What’s wrong with me?” he’ll ask.

“Well your legs aren’t strong and your brain is fuzzy, probably from too many falls off the animals in the rodeos.  Remember those days?” I ask, trying to divert further questioning while reaching into the top drawer of his bedside table and pulling out the book we wrote together and presented to partygoers seven years ago, for his 80th Birthday.

The cover is worn, but the glossy image of father and daughter sitting on horses outside of Monastery Stables in the Wissahickon Valley still shines.

He is on Wyatt, and I am on Seamus.  Both horses are retired now.  Wyatt’s owner died too quickly; too young.  But maybe that’s better, I think.

The front title shouts out in bold black letters: “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived….Not Preached.”  By Barbara L. Sherf and Charles Sherf.

“I wrote this?” he asks.

“Some of it and some of them you told to me over and over while we were riding and I wrote them down.  They are still great stories,” I say as he closes his eyes and listens.  I read the story about a bull named Rodger’s Pet, who traveled the rodeo circuit from places like Sally Starr’s Ranch to Cowtown Rodeo to Totem Ranch.  There’s a photo of Dad as a muscular teen riding the bull.

He opens his eyes.

“I remember.  Nobody could stay on that bull for 8 seconds.  They’d pay you fifty bucks if you did, but nobody could get the job done,” he smiles.  “Many tried.”

I read him the story about the happiest day of his life.  It was during the Great Depression, when as one of five kids, he had managed to save $75 picking tomatoes and delivering them by horse and buggy to Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden.  While he gave a good portion of the weekly pay to his mother, she would hand some back to him every week, and when he had saved $75, he and his best friend, Charlie Pfluger, traveled on Pfluger’s horse from Maple Shade to Ray Hinkson’s Dude Ranch in Camden.  Once there, my father settled on a one-eyed horse and named him Paint, because of the brown and cream colored splotches on his coat.  He loved that horse.  Still does.

While my father never even kept a copy of his Birth Certificate or Divorce Decree, he still had the receipt for that horse.

“How’s Paint doing?” he asks.

“Oh he’s getting older; very mellow.  He let’s me hop on him, but only bareback.  No saddle.”  I “love lie” again.

“Yeah, I paid $75 for him and didn’t even have the $5 to pay for the old army saddle.  Rode him home bareback.  He likes that.  It’s good to ride bareback.  You’ll become a better rider,” Dad lectures.

I turn the page.  There is a photo of Dad coming out of the shute at Cowton Rodeo on Paint during a calf roping competition as his younger brother, Tommy, sits on the fence watching in awe.

“How’s Tommy?” he asks.

“I heard he was here this morning and seems to be doing well after his heart surgery,” I reply.

“Oh yeah, yeah, I remember,” Dad says.  I sense he does not remember, but let it go.

“How is my mother doing,” he asks.

“Oh she’s slowing down too, but she still gets out to collect the eggs from the chicken coop and makes them for Grandpop nearly every morning,” the “love lies” are flowing smoothly now.

“That’s good.  I loved that farm.  Did I ever tell you the story about how we boys would go skinny dipping in the fishing pond?” he asks.

“No, ” I “I love lie,”  “tell me.”

He proceeds to weave the yarn about how his brothers and Pfluger would all jump in the swimming hole “buck naked,” and if his sisters or any girls would come near, the boys threatened to run out and expose themselves.

“That scared them away,” he laughs.  “I don’t think we’d have the guts to do it, but it kept them away,” he chuckles, as I turn the page.

“I like this one” he says of a photo of himself on Paint right next to Pfluger on his horse as an 8 or 9-year-old Tommy balances himself with one knee on both of their shoulder in a triangle formation; no helmets, no nets.

“You’d never be able to get that shot these days.  Look, nobody is wearing helmets.  Uncle Tommy could have fallen off and gotten stomped to death by those horses,” I exclaim, realizing that this is no lie and wondering who took the photo.

Craning my neck looking over his shoulder, I ask him to move over and we continue looking at the pictures.  His eyes close as I read more stories.  He is back there on the farm or maybe we are riding in my beloved Wissahickon Valley section of Fairmount Park.

Gently removing his glasses and putting aside the book, I slide down and cuddle up next to him.

Half asleep he pulls my hands to his chest and murmurs,

“Oh this feels good.  So good.”

The tears come rolling down my cheeks, but I do not move and try to muffle the weeping.

I hold onto him like he held me as a little girl.  Time stands still.

Dad is fully asleep now; twitching and dreaming.  I imagine he is back on the farm riding Paint through the fields, or picking tomatoes to get more money for a saddle and feed.

We lost Mom in May, so he’s the only parent I’ve got left and I tighten my grip.

He is sleeping.

Slowly, methodically, I untangle my arms and hands without waking him. Smoothing his thinning gray hair, I kiss him gently on the cheek.

Do I wake him to say goodbye?

No.  He is at peace, dreaming, and so I exit out a back door so the staff do not bear witness to the river of tears streaming down my face.  The realization sets in that I have really lost both parents and the guilt surfaces that Dad didn’t hear me say goodbye.  But I knew if I had awakened him, the painful questions would have come again.

“Where am I?  Why am I I here?  When am I leaving?  Are you coming back tomorrow?  Who is taking care of Paint?”

Safely home, I speed dial the nursing station.

“Was my father upset when he woke up?” I ask with hesitation.

“Oh no, he was in a chipper mood and he just went down to dinner,” the aide shares.

“I’m glad.  Please tell him I won’t see him tomorrow because I need to take care of his horse, Paint,” I ask the aide with hesitation.

The aide assures me he will relay the message.

He understands the love; the lies.

 

Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf is a writer and personal historian.  She can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.

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