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What Kind of Sandwich are You?

As part of the ‘sandwich generation’ I feel like I a panini, being smashed down and heated on both sides. The cheese oozing out the middle is part of my soul.
My parents are long divorced, and of their four children, I am the one who stepped up to the plate to serve as Power of Attorney for both of them. If you ever decide to take this responsibility on, think twice, because in reality, there is very little power until the child-like parent does not remember what year it is, or who the president of the United States is, or, at times, who you are.
That has been the case with my father. I saw it coming. My maternal grandfather had dementia, and trained as a journalist, I did my homework to find out as much as I could about the memory-robbing disease. It isn’t pretty; on paper or in life.
As his dementia got progressively worse, I began the process two years ago to get him into the Veteran’s Home in Vineland, NJ. As someone who was transient much of his adult life, he had very few documents which is why the process took so long, and who could imagine there was a fire that destroyed many documents in the Veteran’s Administration years ago. Not I?
After the winter from hell in which he fell and hit his head and I couldn’t get to the hospital an hour away as my husband had just had hip surgery, I jumped at the first bed that became available through the Veteran’s in early March. His longtime partner pleaded with me to wait until “after golf season”. I could not. There were no guarantees of a bed then, nor that her 90-year old body would hold out under the stress of caring for him. He is where he needs to be, and is being treated with dignity and respect. Yes, there have been issues, but they are manageable.
Despite my mother’s myriad of health issues; obesity, hypertension, diabetes, recurrent breast cancer, mini-strokes, bedsores and a leaking abdominal aneurism, she is still in denial about her fate. As I work with a funeral director who also buried my grandparents at the Jersey shore, I tentatively ask if she’d like a funeral mass. She does. She also wants to be cremated, which is really the only option in the budget. That is the beginning and the end of the conversation.
As I write this we are a family in crisis as I am make my third attempt to get a Medicaid application approved in order to get her into skilled nursing, and out of her home where my 50-year old unemployed brother is doing his best. But as a caregiver who has not been taking care of himself, he has developed a host of health issues that need to be addressed and his ‘best’ isn’t working anymore.
So I pull out her massive file from a wheeled briefcase and dust off the two previous Medicaid applications to get them ready for a third shot and learn that even if she has a Medicaid application in process, she cannot go back into the rehab side of the nursing facility she has been in twice so far this year until she has “60 Well Days” under Medicare guidelines. I count the days on the calendar and despair sets in as November 29th seems like an eternity to keep this together. The house of cards is crumbling.
Add to the mix that there was a hoarding issue to deal with before she came home from rehab and back taxes due, and the overflowing sandwich has landed me in therapy for anxiety and depression. I haven’t been in a deep sleep since getting a colonoscopy in December with the miracle of twilight anesthesia.
My husband is sick of hearing about the woes, and while my true friends have been very supportive, others have fallen away as if the germs from my sandwich could contaminate them.
My communications consulting and personal history businesses have been mothballed and I have been very selective in taking on new projects on, although the pressure is there to deliver to try to keep the ship afloat. My mother and brother are living off of her meager, Social Security check and what we can send.
Before mom was released from her latest stay at the rehab facility, I decide to go back to her room to say one final goodbye because ‘ya never know.’
As I round the corner I catch her in the act of opening a packet of Reese’s peanut butter cups. SHE IS DIABETIC! How did she get these?
She confesses that she ‘won’ them at Bingo. I’ve been to Bingo and know that you get to choose the prize you win. She chose the peanut butter cups over the scarf or the handbag.
Tears flow for the second time that day and I simply say, “Mom, I came back to say while I am frustrated with you, that I love you, but clearly you don’t love yourself.”
She says she does love herself, but continues to open the package.
I give her a kiss and walk out the door for the two-hour drive home, taking what turns out to be a two-hour detour to hit Vineland while “I’m in Jersey” to check in on dad.
It is a 16-hour day. My shoulders are knotted beyond repair, and upon seeing our golden retriever waiting for me at the door, I sink to my knees, wrapping my arms around him in the hallway and let the tears flow.
Tomorrow, I will pick over the leftovers from the sandwich and hope and pray the panini doesn’t go bad overnight.

Barbara Sherf lives and writes from Flourtown, PA and can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com. Assuming her aging parent issues don’t rear up, she will be participating in the kick-off information fair titled “Old Answers to New Questions for Today’s Sandwich Generation – Using Jewish Wisdom to Navigate this Time of Personal Transition” at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Montgomery County on October, 19th. Five additional workshops sponsored by the Bucks-Mont Neighborhood Kehillah, through a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, will be held through mid-December at various locations in the Bucks-Mont area. Go to jewishphilly.org/sandwich for additional details.

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How I Learned to Love some Lizards by Barbara Sherf

Barb Sherf and Fifi the Great Bearded Dragon sharing a special moment.

Barb Sherf and Fifi the Great Bearded Dragon sharing a special moment.

What did I do on my summer vacation? Well this past week I spent more time that I care to admit on an array of Great Bearded Dragon web sites preparing for and getting through my first (and perhaps last) lizard sitting ordeal that started out just fine.
But by Sunday evening I was chatting on a forum seeking answers to the question: “How long can these lizards go without eating?”
I learned from the Fun Bearded Dragon Facts and Information page that these critters can live up to 10 years and beyond, and can grow up to two-feet in the proper container. Pretty straight forward.
But the answers to the question I posed about their eating habits are all over the board. Some say they can go from two to four days without eating. Others say longer if they are shedding, but they don’t appear to be shedding to me. It’s the post from Linda B. who said, and I quote: “If they aren’t eating every other day, you should take them to a vet who specializes in this breed” that troubles me.
Ut oh.
I dig out the copious notes I had taken while getting instructions from Flourtown skin expert Rachael Pontillo, before she handed over the house key and left me with these pre-historic looking creatures that have become all the craze because there are no fur/allergy issues. Trust me, there are other issues.
Even though the family had left on Thursday morning, I decide to check on the lizards Thursday evening. They seemed content and I gave Sprite some extra treats in the form of live crickets and Fifi a few more super worms. What the heck — it’s their vacation too.
But as a novice, a cricket escapes and leaps all over the family room. I spend the next 15 minutes on all fours trying to catch the critter. Once in my hands, I wonder if this cricket was destined for greater things, and so I open the front door flinging it outside for a second chance. I toy with the idea of rescuing all of the live insects and switching Fifi and Sprite to an organic vegetarian diet for the remaining four days, but realize – for better or worse–I am entrusted with their care.
Returning on Friday afternoon, it seems Sprite and Fifi are eating less and they seem a bit off. Come Saturday, I check in on Sprite and there are about a half dozen uneaten shriveled cricket carcasses that have succumbed to the heat lamps that are atop his container, and two of the super worms have drowned themselves in Fifi’s water container. Oh my!
On my way to the kitchen trash to dispose of the carnage, I veer outside instead, giving them a little funeral while letting their bodies return to the place they belonged all along. R.I.P.
Back inside with Fifi sitting on my lap for a little quality time, I text Rachael with my concerns. “They aren’t eating,” I type.
It seems like forever before she replies. Damn that Disney!
“It’s okay, they get a little depressed when we are away,” she replies. “Talk to them, play with them, make them feel special.”
So I do what I do when I’m a little down and play Pharrell Williams’ famous “Happy Song” and take each out of their containers and do a little dance with them, remembering that Sprite and Fifi don’t get along at all. He hisses and his black beard puffs out at the site of her.
The little song and dance routine seem to perk them (and me) up a bit. I then proceed to talk to them and dress them up in doll clothes as the girls do. I even resort to the baby talk that Rachael performed when she was giving me the lizard sitting instructions.
“How’s my little Fifiweefee today? How is Spriteywhitey feeling?”
I can’t believe I’m doing this and post some of my antics on Facebook, including a shot and some video of Fifi and I wearing our fancy hats. Big mistake. Within minutes, folks from far and wide who have FB fan pages for their lizards are asking to Friend me. I ignore the requests, spending my time on the forums instead in the hope of gleaning more details about their eating habits.
By Sunday, I’m more concerned about the fact that they haven’t pooped. Rachael even left instructions and paper towels for me to clean up after them. Do they have a bowel obstruction? Are they constipated? I give them more greens and re-read the notes, finding the name of their trusted vet, Dr. Sheldon L. Gerstenfeld of Chestnut Hill Veterinary Hospital.
Do I call to see if we can consult by phone. It’s a Sunday. Do they have an emergency answering service? I opt to give the lizards more greens than protein and hope for the best. I’m a day away from Rachael’s return and my freedom. I will be leaping lizards.
Sunday night I have my first scary dead lizard dreams and Monday morning I stop in early. They are eating a bit more, but still no poop. I again go heavy on the greens, leave the family a little note from Fifi and Sprite saying that they missed the girls, and urge Rachael to check in upon their return. I check my e-mail before turning in and no update. Another restless night with scary lizard dreams.
The next day Rachael e-mails to tell me the dragons had pooped and are back on their food.
Yipeeeeeeeeeeee. I jump for joy like a cricket being freed.
Upon returning the key, Rachael is most apologetic about not sharing the critical information that their eating and pooping habits change when their routines change.
“It would have helped,” I manage to mumble.
The ultimate offense occurs after researching and writing this piece for more time than I care to admit. My right foot had fallen asleep and as I get up from my desk to stretch, I go down on the ceramic tile. At first it looks like just a skinned knee, but when my husband helps me up, we realize it’s the ankle. Sprained. Ouch!
So now it’s time to take care of me.
Poor Barbiewarbie needs a visit from Fifiweefee and Spriteywhitey.”

Barbara Sherf is a storyteller who writes from Flourtown, PA.

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Joining the ‘Big Girls Club’ by Barbara Sherf

Growing up with two older sisters and a younger brother, each about two years apart, I longed to gain entry into ‘the big girls club.’
My brother, Kevin, was in a club – and room—of his own.
We three sisters shared a room, although I was a bit isolated on the top bunk and viewed as the baby girl in the family.
The oldest, Karen, and second child, Patrice, tended to pal around together, only grudgingly taking their “baby sister” with them to play outside or down in the basement. Two was company; three a crowd.
Dressed in their starched white cotton shirts and navy blue Catholic school uniforms with lunch boxes in hand they marched off to school as I stayed behind, longing for the day when I would get my own lunch box and join them as part of the ‘big girls club.’
The big day finally came. Looking back on a faded family photo of the three girls in front our twin house, lunch boxes in tow, I felt pure joy at finally joining my two older sisters on the walk to school and a closer glimpse into ‘the big girls club.’
Once there, I hesitated at the classroom door, looking at a nun whose wrinkled face scared me to no end. On that first day Sister Egidia asked me to stand up in front of the whole class and shared with the newcomers that she had taught my mother. Gosh, she was ancient. I felt so humiliated by being singled out and upon returning home vowed never to return to school again. Of course that didn’t happen.
What did happen that year opened my eyes to the disciplinary actions those nuns meted out on any given day. Early on in first grade, Charles Beaver was given a bar of soap and told to eat it to clean out his dirty mouth. He took a bite and spit it out and was sent to the principal’s office. We never found out what happened there. Then came the day that Sister found a brown bag containing an egg salad sandwich abandoned in the rear coatroom.
When nobody fessed up to owning the lunch, Sister made each student take a bite of the sandwich. Gross. To this day I can’t even look at egg salad without my stomach churning. Yuck. Here I was finally in the ‘big girl club’ and I wanted out – big time. Kindergarten was a piece of cake compared to this.
My next entry into the ‘big girl club’ came later that year. Up until this time, I had believed in Santa Claus. Just before Christmas, I saw my two sisters snooping around in our parents’ bedroom. Hovering at the door I asked what they were doing.
“Shh, get in here or we’ll be found out and in deep trouble,” Patrice said. I hesitated, but wanted in on the ‘big girls club.’ They then showed me toys stashed under he bed and clued me into the fact that Santa did not exist. While I was devastated inside, I was also happy to be invited into ‘the big girls club.’ After the holidays were over, I was again banished to the little girl’s club because my mother found out that they had shared the fact that Santa did not exist.
The next time I remember coming back into the ‘big girls club’ was when I got my first training bra. Being the third girl, I typically got hand me downs, but somewhere around 11 years of age, my mother took me and me alone out for my first bra. I wore it proudly as an outward symbol that I had gained entry into the ‘big girls club.’ My sisters laughed when they saw it as it was just a ‘training bra’ and not the real deal like the ones they modeled behind closed doors in our room.
On my 12th Birthday my membership into the ‘big girls club’ became official. That morning I woke up to discover “I had become a woman.” My sisters were thrilled and congratulated me.
I was somber most of the day, fearing that everyone coming to my first boy-girl party that night would be able to tell. I let my best friend, Donna Fitzgerald, in on my secret, but none of the other party goers.
I do remember we turned the lights off and played spin the bottle in the basement briefly until my father flipped the light switch on at the top of the stairs and threatened to come down.
I also remember visiting the powder room every half hour or so to check that everything was in order and I wouldn’t be ‘found out’ by the boys.
In my sisters eyes I was officially ‘in’ the big girls club, but it was a membership I now wanted no part of – but at this stage had no say in the matter.

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A Family Love Letter by Barbara Sherf

Dear Family and Friends,

Thank you for helping me to Live Well, Laugh Often, and Love Much! I also embrace another saying: Cherish Every Memory, Love Every Moment, Embrace Every Possibility.

Borrowing a line from Oprah, This Much I Know is True.

On Healthy Competition
Through my three siblings I learned how to be a competitor early in life and it has served me well. Fight for what you want, need and desire. I’ve also learned later in life how to turn business competitors into collaborators. I’ve learned to ask for help and advice from mentors, colleagues and friends. We are all on this journey together.

On Money
Using a term my father often used, I learned the ‘value of the almighty buck’ from my first job when I was 14, serving customers at Goetter’s Restaurant in Feasterville and working a host of similar jobs to get the money to go to college. Getting a good education while working in the real world turned out to be really good investments.

On Choosing a Partner
I knew that Brad would be a good provider and husband. I did not know how willing he would be to allow me to be the creative spirit I have grown into. Brad, you have given me so much, that I have written a separate private letter to you.

Stories Make You Rich
By working as a journalist, and through Nanny and my father, I learned the art and craft of storytelling, and it too has served me well in so many ways; from family gatherings, to networking events, to the many workshops I have given over the years. People want to hear stories. It’s what connects us.

On Playing Fair
While working as a reporter I learned to ask the tough questions, but also to sit back and listen and to be fair in my coverage. One thing they didn’t teach me in journalism school was the value of having empathy for my subjects. Along the way, I did learn to empathize and not to judge others. There is nothing gained and much to lose by being judgmental.

On Having Children or Not
Somebody asked me recently why Brad and I never had kids, and it was because I was exposed to too much information regarding how badly our environment was polluted while working at our state environmental agency. Since the early 90s I’ve learned to weed my garden by hand and limit my environmental footprint where possible. I’ve also learned to love and nurture children who are not my own as if they were my own. It does take a village to raise a child.

On Taking Risks
Upon leaving the corporate world, I learned to take risks in setting up CommunicationsPro in 1996. There were many ups and downs, but I learned to squirrel away money when business was good, and reach into those funds when things were not so good. I’ve learned there is a downside in taking risks and to accept failures along the way. Compost happens. Deal with it.

On Doing the Hard Work
After writing the book about my dad’s stories and then seeing him develop dementia, I learned how important it was to help other families capture their life stories. It is perhaps the most valuable work I have done. In writing this and some of my stories and teaching memoir classes, I have found it to be the most difficult, but most rewarding writing one can do. It’s like peeling away at an onion and getting to the core of what really matters most.

On Making Mistakes
I’ve learned to look somebody in the eye if possible, or pick up the phone and apologize when you need to apologize. We are all human and mistakes happen. I’ve learned that people will forgive you if you offer a sincere apology.

On Births and Deaths
I have learned, from Jewish tradition, not to celebrate the life of a baby until the child is actually on the planet. I’ve learned the importance of showing up for funerals, even if you don’t really know the person; you are showing up for the living.

On Relationships
I’ve learned that people do come into and out of your life for reasons.

I’ve learned to surround myself with a good group of girlfriends, who have listened and supported me as I hope I have for them. (Please see separate Girlfriends and Goddess Gathering instructions). I’ve learned to stand by old friends who may have drifted, but also to develop new friendships along the way.

Good neighbors are hard to find. I’ve learned to invest time with my neighbors.

I’ve learned that life is fuller with a good dog by your side. For us, it was always the rescued golden retrievers. Lenny, Simba and Tucker. They were all very different dogs, but they made us laugh and walk and brought us unconditional love every day.

On Stuff
I’ve learned that for every object or piece of clothing I bring into our home, an object or garment must leave and I’ve learned to let go of material stuff. I’ve especially learned to pass along a good book.

I have learned that I am enough. I have enough.

On Living and Laughing and Loving
I’ve learned to get my hands in the dirt and garden, but also to sit back at the end of the day and relax and put your feet up and enjoy what you’ve created.

I’ve learned to push back from the desk and take a walk at Morris Arboretum on a nice spring day and let the weeds grow a bit longer.

I’ve learned to dance with myself and laugh at myself. I’ve learned to love myself. I’ve learned to tell others that I love them.

On Food
Through Nanny and my late mother-in-law, I learned the importance of bringing family together around food and celebrating life. Remember when our oven broke just before Christmas in 2006 and we had Crockpot Christmas? It was one of the most relaxing holiday gatherings for me. We were all well served when Cin Cin Chinese delivery then became a tradition in our home. Slaving over a hot stove is not my idea of entertaining. Sitting down with loved ones and sharing stories over a meal is the key to being a good host.

My good friend, Gina, taught me to cook early on in our marriage. I’ve learned to prepare extra meals, leaving one for an elderly neighbor and freezing one for a loved one on a visit. Thank you for this gift I use every day.

At the age of 50, I finally learned portion control and eating well along with the importance of exercising the mind and body every day. I have also learned the art of pampering myself. I enjoyed nightly hot tubs and artist dates where I just spent time with me, myself, and I.

On Sharing
I’ve learned to give my talents and money to good causes, but I have also learned how to say “no” when giving of myself was harming me or taking away from some of my goals.

I’ve learned to take a good picture, and also to have them processed for sharing, framing and scrap booking. Surround yourselves with pictures of those you love and please take away the pictures of you that I have cherished.

On Caregiving
I learned to be a caregiver without complaint, but that to be a good caregiver you must take good care of yourself. I would jump in again without hesitation to help care for a loved one. No regrets. Zero. Zip. Nada.

On Giving a Good Eulogy
I’ve learned o praise an individual for their accomplishments, but also to acknowledge any failings that person may have had – and to ask those gathered to put aside any negative thoughts they may have had of that person. Clear the air. Rest in peace.

On Putting a Card in the Mail
I’ve learned that people appreciate a thank you, birthday, get well or sympathy card. I did. You will find several scrapbooks full of cards from all of you among my material things. Thank you. I know it takes a little extra effort, but it is something tangible people can hold onto in this intangible world.

On Complaining
In 2011 my dear neighbor and friend, Susan Grun, shared a book with me called A Complaint Free World. It was life changing in terms of biting my tongue when a complaint, negative phrase or gossip would come to mind. After a while, the thoughts diminished and for that I am grateful.

On Being Part of a Spiritual Community
In 2011 I started attending Quaker Meeting. With the Friends, I really learned to go within myself and listen. I’ve enjoyed many a Meeting and Quaker potluck, and feel blessed for the spiritual insights shared within this community and for the warm welcome Chestnut Hill Friends have given me. Thank you, my Friends.

On Listening
I’ve learned that if you want to be heard, speak up. If you want to be seen, stand up, and if you want to be appreciated, zip the lip and shut up…and listen.

On Closure
I’ve learned the importance of putting my affairs in order as much as possible while still on the planet and the importance of peeling away at my onion.

I am no saint, but I’ve learned to forgive myself and try to be a better person. I’ve learned to dance in the rain, and the power of gratitude. For all of you and for all of these life lessons, I am truly grateful.

This much I know is true.

Love,

Barbara L. Sherf

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Always Go to the Funeral…People Remember

“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”
Those two lines of an essay a fellow memoir writer had written about following the death of her husband immediately jumped to mind recently as if the essay had been written and read yesterday.
The reality is they were written and shared a year ago by a widow reflecting upon her husband’s death and the funeral. She wrote about how people came up with excuses, but how important it is for the living to feel your presence as part of this larger community mourning with and for you.
So when my husband’s cousin, whom I had been exchanging texts throughout the morning regarding a possible hospice visit to see his mom, our Aunt Elinor, had actually called in the early afternoon, I knew why he was calling.
“My mother just passed,” he said tearfully.
“I’m so sorry,” came the natural flow of condolences, while my mind was racing ahead to the next exchange. It was a Thursday afternoon. They are Jewish. I knew from the death of my beloved mother-in-law, Anne, 15 years ago that the funeral would likely fall on Sunday.
“When and where is the funeral and who can I call?” I asked, while thinking ahead to how to manage covering my tracks with a long scheduled talk on Sunday.
The annual Goddess Gathering, a group of diverse women from all walks of life, were meeting at a lovely hotel for tea, a Goddess ceremony, storytelling, and to hear a talk I was co-presenting titled “Return to Refinement: Beauty and Fashions Through the Ages.” These women were dressing up and wearing hats.
It is a talk I had developed and given many times on my own, but one which I had recently co-presented with a Goddess I had worked with for the past two years to control a skin condition.
And so when the Sunday date and time and South Jersey location were given and dutifully written down, I didn’t offer to go “if I could get out of the talk.” My immediate response, based on that essay, was: “Brad and I will be there.” Period. No if, ands, or buts.
“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”
It’s true.
And so I ended the call, shared the news with my husband, who then called his sister and started the informal phone tree and e-mails to the many cousins. There were 150 or so at one time. My mother-in-law had been very active with the group and was one of the founders and even came up with the name of the newsletter, “What’s Buzzin’ Cousin.” The 4-page black and white text only newsletter (with the exception of the original What’s Buzzin Cousin masthead) was a monthly publication that now comes out quarterly, photocopied and mailed by a smaller group of cousins, who, like me, keep up with family news via this sweet piece of nostalgia that I immediately rip into when it arrives. There is no FaceBook or Twitter feed. This is our lifeline to the lives and deaths and comings and goings of various members. Typically the front left side of the page has an obituary, then it moves into blurbs about who visited relatives in Florida, or an award a child garnered, and even the deaths and rescues of our Golden Retrievers.
My next phone call was to one of the organizers of the Goddess Gathering, a horticultural therapist I had met through a mutual friend years ago, and someone whose energy and lust for life I admire.
I explained the situation and that there was no way I was not going to the funeral. I had already committed. The words from that essay had struck a cord with me when it was read, and remains with me now.
While in a fog at a boyfriends’ funeral in 1982, I did come away with a sense of who showed up and were part of the fabric that wove together the mending of my soul. The same holds true for my mother in laws’ funeral, and how cousin Rob, Aunt Elinor and Uncle Norman, Uncle Buddy and Gayle were with us in her room just hours before she passed. She was unconscious at that point and highly medicated after the ovarian cancer that had been in remission for a year came back with such a vengeance that she turned to me before the others gathered to say “no more…no more, Barb.”
They and so many others were with us at the funeral. Cousin Rich who owns Maplewood Music Studio, and his brother, Sam, who happened to be in from California, sat down and recorded the music to Anne’s favorite song, “Imagine” by John Lennon, that played as her casket made its way down the center aisle of the synagogue at the conclusion of the service.
My next phone after speaking with Cheryl was to Rachael. We had recently turned the talk into a webinar and she had totally revamped the presentation, adding much of her own material and personal sketches she had illustrated from her days as a fashion major in college.
“Sure I’ll do it, but it won’t be the same without you,” she responded.
There was no discussion about skipping the funeral and going to the Shiva afterwards. Zero, zip, nada.
“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”
And so we went to one of the most difficult funerals I have witnessed since the death of David, and then Anne. The Rabbi was spectacular and was on staff at the retirement community where Aunt Elinor and Uncle Norman had been for the past seven years.
Seven years, I thought, where had that time gone. Brad and I had been regular visitors despite the frontal lobe dementia that made Aunt Elinor.
On one such visit, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Barb, get me out of here…get me out of here.”
My husband and I both commented on the way home from Voorhees, New Jersey to Flourtown that we thought she meant “get me out of this body and this life.”
So cruel this disease that had robbed my maternal grandfather and our family for nearly 20 years, and one that is holding our family hostage with my father’s loss of memories.
At the service, the Rabbi talked of catching glimpses of what Elinor had been like when she first moved into the retirement community; playing bridge with the ladies, regular appointments at the hair salon, happy hours and dinner with new friends and old.. He then spoke of the unspeakable and what we all witnessed in the form of the dementia robbing her of her spirit.
Visitors came sporadically toward the end, yet Norman stood by her side as he had for nearly 60 years of marriage. He did get some brief respite when she laughed while watching reruns of a sitcom titled “Always Love Raymond”. Why that show touched her I don’t think we will ever know.
Cousin Max, a publisher in New York City, cried openly after the rabbi’s opening pray. He then was the first of the two sons to deliver a eulogy based on his remembrances of life in the Chamelot era, when Elinor was at the top of her game, and Norman, an osteopathic physician, came home from a long day at his practice to be with family. He talked about their trips and growing up in a simpler, carefree time. He outwardly sobbed talking about how proud he was when she had been named head of the Mathematics Department at Cherry Hill High School, and he cried remembering a retirement filled with tennis in Florida, touring near and far, and winning trophies in bridge tournaments. Tears rolled down my cheeks remembering the brunches she would attend at my late mother-in-laws, and how we would both get silly after a round, sometimes two, of Bloody Marys that my brother-in-law would fix.
Max paused several times to compose himself, reach for the tissue box, and blow his nose. And then it was over. And we all sighed. But it was not over.
Next up came Robert, a physician, who gave an equally moving and tearful eulogy. There was something about seeing these grown sons cry along with the tie-in to my father’s struggle with dementia that caused me to lose it – big time. Not only did I cry, I blubbered; blubbered like a baby for Elinor, for Uncle Norman, for the sobbing sons, for Anne, for my father and his dementia, and the closing of this chapter of the Russian Jews who had made it safely to America so many years ago.
After the service, I could not ‘chit chat’ with the other mourners but had to leave the lobby and sit in the car for a good cry before the burial. I almost didn’t leave the car when we arrived at the cemetery, but the words again haunted me.
“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”
And so I soldiered on, huddling on a cold, rainy March day burying Aunt Elinor, saying the Mourners’ Kaddish, and going back to the retirement community for kosher deli and conversation. We sat for a time with a very vivacious 97-year-old Aunt who shared the family stories, and her daughter, who had contacted me recently to capture her mother’s stories. I could not help myself from pulling out a camera to take a photo of Aunt Eve and Max and Amy’s daughter, also named Eve. The two had never met. I felt it needed to be documented, along with a photo of Eve and her grown daughter because “you never know.”
Once during the afternoon, when another cousin commented how great I looked, I thought back to the Goddess Gathering and what they were doing and how Rachael had stepped up to the plate and Charlotte had stepped in to set up the projector and how on some level, these women knew the words the essayist had written.
“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”

Barbara Sherf is a personal historian and legacy planner who can be reached at 215.990.9317 or CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.

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Alzheimer’s Gets in the Way of Video

by Barbara L. Sherf

Tears welled in my eyes as I watched my father tell his rich stories of life on the farm picking tomatoes for Campbell’s Soup Company and riding in local rodeos over and over in a rambling way while filming him at a stable where we used to ride horses.

What was I thinking when I decided to attempt to do a video of his life for his 85th birthday? I felt guilt and shame for not filming him five years ago, when we had written a book of our stories together for his 80th birthday. His memories and the stories were much fresher then. The Alzheimer’s was early stage. Clearly it had progressed. The camera does not lie.

“How did it go?” my sister asked after the interview.

“He was animated and talkative on the car ride, but sitting in front of the camera with the little red light blinking, well, he struggled. With some photos and creative editing, I’ll be able to put something together,” I responded. “He wasn’t even interested in riding. It was sad.”

Now, looking at the computer screen of images of this former cowboy who has shrunk both physically and mentally, I wondered again if I could pull it off. Knowing it might be the last party we threw with family and friends from his hometown of Maple Shade, New Jersey, I wanted to make it all come together in one nice, neat package. But the package was unraveling before my eyes.

Looking into the camera, he talked of the lovely rides he had with his daughter, Barbie, in the Wissahickon Valley. I finally stepped in, reminding him of the fact that I was “Barbie,” his riding partner, and that we had written a book together titled “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived…Not Preached.”

The irony slapped me in the face. I had not practiced what I had been preaching.

Here I was starting a new business to help other families capture the stories of their loved ones in both print and DVD, and I had not done the critical video with my own father when his memories were still fresh.

I remember sitting with my first paying customer, Lula Pidcock Mohr, after her son, Bob, had seen an article about what I had done with my father and our book. He contacted me wanting to capture his 92-year-old mother’s story before it was too late.

After sitting with Lula for two painful hours, I wondered if I could capture her story as her memories were clearly fading. As I was about to leave, her granddaughter offered me a set of Lula’s journals that had been written a decade before. Taking the diaries, I sat in a corner booth of a nearby diner for two hours developing a series of questions based on her earlier recollections. From there I was able to put together a booklet and an oversized article for her 93rd birthday party, where her grandchildren came up to her after reading the piece, saying things like “I didn’t know that about you, gammy.”

But the story gets better. Six months later, when Lula’s stepbrother, who was 20 years younger, was flying in from California to visit, Bob called me again to ask, “Is there any value to having the two of them sit for an interview and videotaping some of the family history?”

“Absolutely,” I said, knowing that her ancestors were the first white settlers of Bucks County and had come over on a boat with William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.

And so the three of us and a two-man camera crew drove to the vacant family homestead and set up on the lawn to interview them. We then went to a restored old barn that had burned to the ground, killing four horses, when Lula was a little girl. She cried remembering the devastating episode. We journeyed to the home where she and her husband had raised their four children, then on to Pidcock Creek in Washington Crossing Historic Park, and finally to the family cemetery, where her father was buried after dying during the influenza epidemic when Lula was a toddler.

It was a rich, powerful testament to all that this woman had endured, and I received two lovely thank you cards from her telling me how the project, especially the video, had changed her life.

Within six months I was in a hospital room where she was dying of cancer. While a bit confused about what was going on, she looked up, said my full name and held my hand. We did not say much for it had already been said and done.

Her son called me about a month later to say that his mother had died but that it had been a meaningful transition.

“I took a big screen TV and a looped version of the video into her hospice room 48 hours before she died. Family members and staff watched her story over and over, and she would not let anyone turn it off or even turn it down,” he said. “I believe it was a confirmation of her life and closure for her.”

Goosebumps stood on my arms, and tears came streaming down as I stood by Lula’s father’s grave, where her ashes were being interred and where we had previously filmed her story. The minister told the audience that he had not known Lula but that he and his wife watched her half-hour video on the Internet the previous night.

He spoke of her life and her rich history and commitment to family, noting that he was only able to deliver a proper eulogy based on hearing the family stories and seeing the video. He spoke of the value of capturing our loved one’s stories before it is too late. The camera in my mind captured the testimonial, and I replay it nearly every day.

And so that was my motivation for capturing my father on video; to give him and all of us closure and a confirmation of the things he had done and the people (and horses) that surrounded him in this life.

Barbara Sherf is an author, motivational speaker, and founder of Capture Life Stories. She did manage to put together a video about her father, which can be viewed at www.CaptureLifeStories.com. She lives in Flourtown with her husband and golden retriever.

“Capture Life Stories” founder Barb Sherf with her father, Charles, are seen riding in the Wissahickon Valley five years ago. This photo served as the cover to a book the two wrote together capturing their memories. Barb is now in the process of turning the book into a video, but she is struggling due to her father’s fading memories. (Photo courtesy of Capture Life Stories).

“Capture Life Stories” founder Barb Sherf with her father, Charles, are seen riding in the Wissahickon Valley five years ago. This photo served as the cover to a book the two wrote together capturing their memories. Barb is now in the process of turning the book into a video, but she is struggling due to her father’s fading memories. (Photo courtesy of Capture Life Stories).

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Reaction to Chestnut Hill Quaker Friends Meetinghouse

Reaction to the new Chestnut Hill Quaker Friends meetinghouse was celebratory on Sunday, as members worshiped for the first time in their new meeting room. The new meetinghouse is the only location in the Greater Philadelphia region with a Skyspace by world-renowned light artist James Turrell.
Having outgrown the tight quarters of their 82-year-old meetinghouse and after many years of discussion and careful consideration, the 200 member Chestnut Hill Quaker Friends marveled at the environmentally friendly building built just one lot below the old meetinghouse near United Cerebral Palsy of Philadelphia on Mermaid Lane.
Following an unusually talkative meeting, Storm Evans, Clerk of the Client (Building) Committee, pushed the button to open the retractable roof in the ceiling at the close of the meeting.

“I’m thrilled that people were thrilled. It needed to be opened,” she said, noting that what the group witnessed was just a preview to seeing the finished Turrell Skyspace. The piece will not be complete until Turrell comes in early October to program the interior lights for approximately hour-long cyles at dawn and dusk. “For it to be a Skyspace, it needs to be the right time of day with the lighting on,” she said. Turrell also does not want photos of the space taken as he feels his work is to be experienced in person, according to Nikka Landau, Skyspace Coordinator.
Turrell, 70, who credits his upbringing in the Quaker faith as the inspiration for his fascination with light, has donated the design for the Skyspace as a gift to the Meeting. Quakerism focuses on a direct relationship with God, sometimes expressed as the “Light”, and discerning this light in all aspects of one’s life.
“The Quakers do what they call ‘going inside to greet the Light,’” explained Turrell in an interview on YouTube. “This ‘going inside to greet the Light’ is like going into self… So it is not dissimilar from going inside in terms of meditation…Shutting off other influences to find this very fine thread, to find this dim light that is so powerful.”
In a Skyspace, Turrell constructs a chamber containing simple seating, lighting, and an opening in the ceiling. Most people who enter a Turrell Skyspace – be it in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England, or the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in Brooklyn – naturally fall quiet as they look up at the sky, particularly at dawn and dusk, Landau noted. The contrast between the internal light of the room and the altering outdoor natural light intensifies viewers’ perception of the changing light and deepens reflection.
Wyndmoor resident Jude Brandt, a Quaker for 40 years, and a member of the Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting for the past decade, was moved to tears in the new space.

“There is an elegant simplicity about the design of the meeting room that brought me to tears for a good portion of the meeting and that’s not common for me. There was a sense of wholeness and energy that was experienced on another plane than the usual consciousness,” she said.

As for her role in the process, Evans, like many of the other Friends, did not want to be singled out.

“God gave me a lot of gifts and I happened to be at an age and a place where there were no little kids and no elders and I am self-employed. It was a community effort. It was a perfect storm.”

Following the meeting, Dylan Steinberg talked about the celebratory experience.

“It was like being at a Quaker wedding where after the couple says their vows everyone is moved to speak and share in the celebration,” said Steinberg of Chestnut Hill.

Dan Evans, who serves as treasurer and has been a member for a dozen years described himself as “giddy” and talked about how the Schuylkill Expressway was projected to solve traffic woes for many years noting “it was jammed from the first day it opened. It would be good if we experienced the same problem here.”

However a longtime Friend, who did not want to be identified was more circumspect in her words saying that her prayer for the meeting is “that we do not lose connection to the spirit with all of this material temptation.”

Dona Garrettson, who co-chairs the Hospitality Committee with Liz Williams, was in her glory in the shining new stainless steel kitchen, where members were gleefully washing dishes by hand because nobody knew how to operate the new dishwasher.

“We have to figure out how to use this space effectively. Despite what you see here today, we know this building is imperfect as we are all imperfect. To be a Quaker we need to work every hour of every day to treat each other with love and respect,” said Garrettson, who along with her husband, George, and their four children joined the Meeting in 1974.

One daughter who lives in Mt. Airy, Carla White, was on hand as she is nearly every week. “I was really amazed by how many came for their first worship. I felt it was a blessing of the space,” she said.

One Friend who also wished not to be identified spoke about the morning being filled with joy, relief and trepidation as well as of the Spirit that will buoy us and guide us to share our gifts with the wider world.”

Mt. Airy resident Margaret Funderburg came to honor Gertrude Fuchs a longtime family friend and member of the Meeting who has since passed away.
“She left a sizable chunk of money for this purpose and I came to honor her,” she said.

Miriam Fisher of Chestnut Hill talked about the difference it makes being in a beautiful space from her firsthand experience.

“Beauty matters. I do work at the historic Fairhill Cemetery where we try to keep things cleaned up and I saw a difference in people before that space was cleaned up and after. People look up when they are in beautiful spaces,” she noted.

Diane Dunning, who was a leader of the $3 million “Building the Light” fundraising campaign stood with fellow committee member Mary Day in the new social hall that looks out to a courtyard and a wooded section of Fairmount Park.

“Quakers are often derided for spending so much time making decisions. Many become impatient with the Quaker process but today we see that taking all of this time has resulted in the making of clear decisions,” said Dunning, an artist. “It was magical to see the light come in the new meeting room. Simply magical.”

Tracey Smith, a member of the Green Street Friends Meeting, lives just across the street on Mermaid Lane and had a firsthand look at the project as it progressed.

“To see it unfold was like a spiritual journey. From my bed I saw a vacant lot change into something that is full of life. I hope to see it spread and grow.”

Dennis Wint, who was in the news recently regarding his retirement as President and CEO of the Franklin Institute, talked about how people handle change.

“Life cannot exist without change. The question is how does one take advantage of the opportunity that change presents in a meaningful way,” he said.

Once it is finished, the Turrell Skyspace will be open for worship to the public at regular publicized times during the week as well as for special events. For more information, go to www.quaker.org/chestnuthill.

Barbara Sherf is a guest writer, Quaker attendee, and personal historian. She can be reached at 215.233.8022 or CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.

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The Umbrella Project

Looking Forward to Rainy Days and Random Acts of Kindness
by Barbara L. Sherf

It all started innocently enough on a rainy weekday afternoon in 2006. Stopped at a red light near my home, I spotted an elderly African American man waiting for a bus. It was raining. Hard.

I reached behind the seat and grabbed an umbrella, rolled down the window and handed it to him.

This man, who I suspect may have served our country in World War II, was genuinely shocked by this simple random act of kindness. As traffic backed up behind me, he thanked me and opened the umbrella, along with a cheek-to-cheek smile. I was so moved by the whole transaction that the idea for “The Umbrella Project” was incubated then and there.

Once home, I scoured the closets for spare umbrellas and stuck them in my car and actually looked forward to a rainy day. When the skies opened up, I’d look for someone caught in the downpour so I could continue the gratifying work with the offering of an open umbrella.

There is no web site or Board of Directors to speak of, but there is now a steady stream of followers.

“How do I get it back to you?” a GenXer asked upon receiving a pink and white beauty.

“You don’t; just pass it along,” I shouted, driving away.

While visiting my sister in Florida, I mentioned “The Umbrella Project” when we were caught — without an umbrella — in a downpour.

The next Christmas, I received a box filled with two dozen cheap umbrellas. Wooooohooooooo! When the supply gets low or I see them on sale, watch out; Ca-ching! The Dollar Store, flea markets, yard sales or any other place that could possibly have a supply of inexpensive umbrellas. I even scored three umbrellas when a neighbor moved out and left them at the curb for the garbage truck.

Feeling emboldened one afternoon, I explained the mission to a clerk at the coat check at a local museum. “Cool,” he said, returning with a handful of abandoned umbrellas. These babies were going back out on the street where they belong. He got it and gave. Big time. I was giddy.

I have parted with cane-like umbrellas, foldable ones, black, blue, polka dot, striped, and even a Renoir graced my revolving collection.

Of the recent coat check coup, I’ve added a label to each of the handles that reads: “You are now part of ‘The Umbrella Project.’ Spread some sunshine and pass this along on a rainy day.”

Barbara Sherf is a Flourtown-based public relations professional and certified lover of horses and Golden Retrievers. She will be teaching a class titled “Mining Your Stories” in mid-May through Mt. Airy Learning Tree. She can be reached at barb@communicationspro.com

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