by Barbara Sherf
Labcorp Technician Kathy Moody and Chestnut Hill resident Laura Flandreau are all smiles after receiving their free hugs.
My husband and I traveled to our ‘happy place’ in mid-October, a week before my father passed away and three weeks before the presidential election. Instead of telling people I was going on vacation, I used the term “retreat” as I wanted to tune out the nasty news cycles, get back to nature and pre-mourn my father’s pending death.
Walking along the beach of Assateague Island in Maryland, where the wild horses roam, I started looking for seashells; however due to the ravages of Hurricane Michael, what I found were simply shards of shells.
Now that my father has passed away and as my way of dealing with the election results, I now take these remaining shell shards around with me wearing my “Make American Kind Again” button that Mt. Airy Dumpster Diver artist Ellen Benson made, and I hold a handmade “FREE HUGS” sign, doubling down on kindness.
Last Friday I gave and received 12 hugs in 15 minutes at the LabCorp facility in Wyndmoor. Chestnut Hill resident Laura Flandreau and technician Kathy Moody were the first two to receive the free hugs.
“We don’t get enough hugs. It was wonderful, warm and a great way to start the day,” said Moody as a fellow technician liked the idea but had “a thing with personal space.” I respected that.
“It was a wonderful brightening up of my day,” echoed Flandreau as I hugged her and each person in the waiting room. Nobody declined.
From there I went to Camden in an attempt to probate my father’s will. Turns out I was in the wrong county, but along the way I met a bus full of blind people who asked for and received more than one hug.
Walking up to the burly security guards at the courthouse, one looked at the sign and acquiesced. “Sure, we can all use hugs,” said Bob Fenton as his co-workers lined up behind him for more hugs.
Smokers outside of the building received hugs; a hot dog vendor received a hug; construction workers received hugs; a woman in a wheelchair, members of the Hispanic, African American and Caucasian populations gave and received hugs. Children with mucus running down their little noses got and received hugs. A man coming out of Wawa who initially declined because he was sick broke down and agreed to a hug. Even the gas station attendant, with the heavy smell of petroleum on him, took two hugs and vowed to make a sign of his own.
Of all four dozen prospective huggers, there was just one man who outwardly declined.
“I’d rather have a gun,” he said as he hopped into his pickup truck and sped off.
As I gave and received the hugs, I whispered “Make American Kind Again.”
“Amen” was the word most responded with.
When I finally got to the right building and department for surrogate court, the security guard, the receptionist and my contact for the will, Ameenah Rasheed, wearing a Muslim head covering, gave and received hugs.
As Rasheed proceeded to look at the paperwork, a look of concern came over her face. She explained that since I had my father’s mailing address changed to mine several years ago, the will needed to be processed in Norristown, Montgomery County, a mere 20 minutes from our Flourtown home, even though he was living in South Jersey at the time of his death.
“I’m so sorry you had to come all of this way,” she apologized.
“I’m not,” I responded. “The people in Camden welcomed me with open arms, and in no way was this a wasted trip.”
On Saturday I proceeded to do the “free hugs” thing at the Chestnut Hill Library and to the five attendees of the Patchwork Storytelling Guild.
“My reaction was mixed,” said Ray Tackett of Germantown. “I thought it was a sweet idea, but some could consider you a weirdo. I liked that it was relatively spontaneous, and I didn’t have to think too much about the decision as you walked toward me with the sign and open arms.”
Later in the afternoon I made my way to Germantown to sit with a dozen area residents at a post-election support group for individuals having difficulty dealing with the election results. Claudia Apfelbaum of ClaudiaListens.me, a Germantown-based psychotherapist specializing in healing from personal and interpersonal trauma, led a workshop called “A Time of Mourning.”
She said that many people are experiencing fear and despair since the election. Apfelbaum suggests that doing progressive things together with others is a major way of combatting the fear and feelings of isolation. “I am encouraging people to put their energy out there in a positive way, whether it’s taking up a cause, being creative or simply being kind to another.”
As I got back in the car, I looked again at the dwindling number of shell shards and again saw the beauty in their imperfections. May we all see the beauty in our imperfections and in this imperfect world.
Barbara Sherf can be reached at 215-990-9317 or Barb@CommunicationsPro.com.
ORIGINAL SOURCE: Chestnuthilllocal.com
by Barbara Sherf
J. William Baxter of Glenside receives hugs from Barbara Sherf at Trader Joe’s.
For those of you who missed my Dec. 8 article about using kindness as my form of activism and carrying a “free hugs” sign around wherever I go, let me share where the idea came from:
My therapist, Edie Weinstein, suggested this idea to me at one of our sessions.
Following the death of my father and the elections, I saw a clear need to get back into therapy, and I’m told that the mental health business is booming right now.
Weinstein started doing the free hugs thing on Valentines’ Day weekend of 2014.
“I brought a group of friends to 30th Street Station for a Free Hugs Flash Mob,” said Weinstein, who had a heart attack in June, 2014. “Our intention was for people to remember that every day is a good one to express love. We walked around the train station for an hour or so and hugged a few hundred people between the 12 of us. Friends started calling us ‘Hug Mobsters.’
“Shortly afterward, in the midst of cardiac rehab, I ‘took it on the road,’ so to speak, since walking was part of my recovery and I realized that hugs are heart-healthy, not just for the cardiac muscle, but for the common emotional heart we all share. Since then, I have done Free Hugs events in the Philly area, as well as D.C. I hugged people on Election Day and several times post-election. I have done them at parades, community gatherings, festivals and rallies, as well as nursing homes and in the Phoenix airport while waiting for a plane.”
I too keep my “Free Hugs” sign in the car, but one difference is that as I give and receive hugs, I whisper “Make America Kind Again.” Those four little words, placed on a button made by Mt. Airy artist Ellen Benson, have opened up arms and conversations.
At Harston Hall, a nursing home in Flourtown where my neighbor Ginny Ashenfelter is, the free hugs turned into a support group meeting with a half dozen mostly African American men. Bruce Nichols, 61, a permanent resident there, lost his mother around the same time I lost my father in October, so we have a special bond. “I think you’re on the right track with the hugs,” said Nichols.
I sat with him for a half hour or so and let him visit with our dog, Tucker, a sweet golden retriever whose age we guess is 12 and who I fear will pass over the Rainbow Bridge soon. “He’s a sweet boy. I love animals and hugs, so you pretty well made my day, my week, my life,” Nichols exclaimed.
I then proceeded to hug another two dozen patients and staff members within the facility and enjoyed a visit with Mrs. Ashenfelter, former owner of The Happy Butterfly store in Chestnut Hill. “Thank you for the hug, and thank you for coming,” said Ashenfelter, noting that she had few visitors and would welcome visits from area residents who knew her. “People say they’ll get in to visit, but they don’t. Everyone’s too busy. We need more hugs.”
I received a free hug from a Muslim African American woman I’ll call Mina who did not want to be identified for security reasons. “I have no fear,” she said. “It’s all in God’s hands. People don’t understand how we are all interconnected in this universe. People should learn to treat each other with kindness and respect more, and your idea of the ‘free hugs’ sign just kind of put it in their face.”
She shared with me that the issue of racism is not new and that the idea of Donald Trump in the White House is something she has come to accept. “We’ve fought the fight before, and still there is evil among us. There is greed and superiority and sexism added to the mix, and it is painful at times to watch … I’ve learned to love people, even the ugly side, and also take pity on them … I won’t walk in fear.”
As I sat in the meeting room at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church before my “A Course on Love” book discussion group, a man from Tibet, Sonam Kun Tso, saw my sign, and we exchanged hugs and ideas. I had seen this landscaper/handyman on several occasions but never connected with him until he saw the sign.
My “Free Hugs” sign is getting a bit tattered since I hugged 100 seniors at a Holiday Concert at the Center on the Hill in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill last Thursday. Geneva Ashworth of Mt. Airy was there and initially didn’t recognize me as I was giving out free hugs at the Trader Joe’s in Abington the following day. “I just received a hug yesterday, but I’ll take another,” said Ashworth.
Over the weekend I hit the Flourtown Giant, Dollar Store, Hallmark store and even the Planet Fitness gym. “Oh I’m too sweaty,” said Jane Prosser of Lafayette Hill. “I am too; let’s hug,” I responded, and we did hug.
Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf can be reached at 215-990-9317, or visit her blog at CommunicationsPro.com. She is looking to sit down and have a conversation with a Trump supporter to better understand her fellow humans.
ORIGINAL SOURCE: ChestnutHillLocal.com
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.
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
Cowtown 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I found much more than I bargained for while doing a story on the closing of the Flourtown Farmer’s Market this past weekend in the form of a healer whom I believe channeled my Mother’s spirit to me. As I recounted the story to my sister that night, she broke down sobbing because I – not she – had had the encounter with Mom. My Mother visited me with and through a Glenside woman who works out of a placed called Healing Center in Erdenheim.
As some background, my Mother passed not so peacefully at her home on May 22nd. Of the four grown children, I was her namesake and her Power of Attorney who had to make the tough call regarding ending her treatments, and ultimately her life.
After interviewing vendors and customers in the crowded Flourtown Farmer’s Market aisles, I spotted Andrea Borowsky, who had established Beck’s Catering more than 20 years ago. As a regular customer, she asked me where I had been and I explained that my Mother had passed and that I simply stumbled upon the fact that the market was closing this weekend and transitioning to a new location and was there to do a story. Andrea introduced me to Cara Brind, “my friend and ace massage therapist,” and someone she highly recommended. I said I was already working with someone on massage but craned my neck offhandedly commenting that I should have gotten in there before the week was out. After the exchange, Cara followed me a bit and I knew she was someone on some level I needed to connect with. Cara hung around and after I got all my photos and quotes, she offered a complimentary massage for what I had gone through with my Mother. We both looked at our calendars and decided to get together just after 5 pm, even though she had already closed shop and was simply heading home for the weekend.
As I entered her space, I commented on the large blue butterfly poster and butterfly décor and I commented that the butterfly theme had worked its way into my Mother’s passing. I had even printed my mother’s story for her service on paper bordered with butterflies.
In short order Cara worked my body like it had never been worked before, and I could feel the energy coming through her fingers. I asked if she did Reiki as well, because the energy was so strong, and Cara responded that sometimes she couldn’t stop the energy, even when she was doing a regular massage. Reiki (pronounced ray-key) means “universal life energy” in Japanese, and Reiki practitioners are trained to detect and alleviate problems of energy flow on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level.
At some point the massage ended, and Cara excused herself and told me to use the room as long as I needed. As I lay there with a heated gel mask on my eyes, I thought I heard her come back in and I clearly felt the Reiki energy over my legs. It was so powerful that I just assumed she had come back into the room to perform some light Reiki and that’s when Mom visited happened. I said aloud that I could feel my mother’s presence in the room and through her fingers. My mother was telling me she was at peace, and that I should be too. Again, thinking Cara was in the room, I said I wished I had gotten one last hug from my mother, and as I lay there, I felt an otherworldly compression on my chest. It was a spiritual hug. At that point, I whipped off the eye mask to see that Cara was not in the room. I wandered out to the hallway and Cara said she had been out there for 20 minutes or so waiting for me. I told her what had happened and she said she wasn’t surprised.
“Your mother was with us from the start. I felt her energy going through me as I was massaging you,” said Cara, who said that in another life she was a Shaman, but that she only shared that with individuals she felt understood the afterlife. Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.
As the tears flowed freely Cara said my mother told her she loved me very, very much, and that she trusted me to make the right decisions. She told me that my mother said that “she was okay with the way things happened in the end, and not to worry, she was okay with all of it.” Cara had not known that I was my Mother’s Power of Attorney and that I had to make the call on discontinuing treatment.
Cara told me she didn’t normally bring up the spirits who visit during a healing session, unless the person she was working on brought it up.
She said she was glad I was open to receiving the healing as she believed my Mother’s spirit had attached itself to her and would not let her go. As we walked out the door two-and-a half hours later and with absolutely no discussion of or exchange of money, Cara thanked me for letting the spirit speak through her, allowing her to go home and walk her dog and get on with her weekend. She also told me that my mother has more to tell me and that she will visit me in my dreams. Thank you Cara, which means ‘dear one’ in Latin, for being a dear one to me on Friday. I received more than a massage, I received a clear message that my Mother is at peace, and so I am at peace.
Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher Cara Brind can be reached at 267 752-6046 or www.massagewithcara.com. Barbara Sherf can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com or 215.990.9317.