A Letter From My Mother

I’m convinced that one of the hardest things to do is to switch piano teachers during the formative years. It’s hard on a student. And it’s hard for the new teacher to assess prior skills and develop a rapport with a transfer student. I know this from both a student’s and a teacher’s viewpoint. Recently I stumbled across a letter from my own mother. She wrote in response to a long epistle I had penned as a teenager. I waxed eloquent in my plea to stop my own private study in piano after we moved to a new community. Her letter smacked with impact. I could have written it to my own daughter a few years ago. Since tomorrow is Mother’s Day, I remember Mother with love. Here are her timeless words, from another time and another place.

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Dear Daughter,

Last evening while thinking about the situation, I felt your father and I should no longer ask you to take lessons on the piano and resolved to discuss this with him. Upon reading your letter to us this morning, I wondered if your thought waves had influenced my thoughts. If you change your mind at any future date, please let us know; I had hoped that your experience with lessons under an inexperienced person would not preclude all future lessons. But in any case, do return to playing the piano for your own pleasure (and mine) and don’t hold a grudge against Chopin.

There’s little that I can say but to caution you that while you feel you are an adult, you still have much growing and learning to do. You have many “do-it-yourself” interests but I’m sure that after an initial learning stage you may find it wise to turn to someone more skilled or knowledgeable in that interest in order to keep improving. Try to keep an open mind. There are many things or ideas to which you have not been exposed.  In the meantime, we should all keep learning and improving in the fields of religion, music, writing, drawing, painting, speaking and personal development. No matter what one’s vocation, life will be richer and more complete because of these experiences.

Yes, darling, we are biased parents—biased in favor of our daughters. But we’re conscious that we have failed you in many ways. We love all of you very much and are proud of you.

Love always, Mother

Reprise TJ Junkins

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn this journey through life, a chance meeting with another person occasionally develops into a unique and treasured friendship.  Today I honor World War II veteran and fellow writer Tom Junkins.

I met Tom at the first writing event I attended following my return to writing.  About the age of my own father, Tom had devoted his waning years to recording his life experiences.  He printed books, bound them, and offered them to his family and friends.  He threw himself enthusiastically into the writing life.

Together we traveled to monthly meetings.  He provided enthusiastic encouragement for my projects.  I helped him produce one of his memoir volumes.  In a conversational voice, Tom’s memoirs recorded his stories as if he spoke to his grandchildren.  When his health declined, he responded with wit and good humor, in the style I came to know as Tom’s unique voice.

He wrote, “On Friday June the third at five in the evening, my right leg went numb.  I called 911.  They put me in an ambulance and sent me to Via Christi, St. Francis.  They landed on me like a bunch of crows on road kill, ran all kinds of scans and tests, and scheduled surgery with a vascular surgeon for Sunday morning to remove a blood clot.”

Our days of writer’s meetings drew to a close with his move to the Veteran’s Home.  Tom still wrote daily, even as he struggled with growing physical limitations.  What have I learned from this writer?  He displayed grace and courage when facing his health issues.  In this way he reminded me of my own father.

But more than that, Tom’s dedication to the written word is testament to the vitality we find in books.  By writing stories for his family, Tom created a gift they can enjoy forever.  As I sit in my office, I am surrounded by books, by journals of my lost parents, and letters from long-gone relatives and friends.  They live through their words.  Their essence and personality shine into my life.  When I read words written by giants of my past, their voices echo in my mind.  And I know they are still with me, in words and in spirit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne week ago, Tom Junkins passed from this life. His words speak now only from pages he wrote. With his passing, he joined those giants of my past whose journals and letters provide sustenance for my future. I humbly repost this blog in his honor. I will long remember his enthusiasm for writing. Here’s to you, Tom. May your adventures continue into the next life.

Barry McGuire

One of the best things about piano service is the fascinating people I meet along the way. Barry McGuire qualifies. I met him when a music store in Wichita sent me to tune his recently purchased piano. Little did I know that chance meeting would develop into a unique and rewarding friendship.

Barry McGuire, retired actor, puppeteer and magician, a native of my home county, and about the age of my father, settled into tiny Elk Falls—for the third time—a couple years ago. Decades earlier, his creative genius spurred an artistic revival in this dying town. Never allergic to hard work, he transformed stone foundations into tiered native flower gardens that brought busloads of tourists to this forgotten place. Through the work of a group of artists, Elk Falls became a thriving haven of creativity. Barry had a theater constructed and entertained tourists with puppet shows and magic acts.

With a restlessness that characterizes him to the present day, he left Elk Falls to return to acting. His credit list includes stages and rave reviews from New York and Florida to Indiana and California. Health issues of his advancing age brought him back to Elk Falls at the urging of his Kansas friends. That is when I met this octogenarian.

I tuned his piano and left, never expecting to see him again. As I headed down the board walk outside his home, I heard him tickle the ivories on the freshly tuned piano. Beautiful, intricate classical music followed me to my car. Actor, magician, puppeteer and accomplished pianist!

A few weeks later, I happened to meet him in the aisle of a grocery store in my hometown. Restless again, he planned a move to Winfield where he would be closer to medical service, mechanics, and stages. By the end of the year, he’d moved into a local apartment complex. The only person in town he knew was the piano tuner. Me.

More than happy to introduce him to Winfield, I gladly referred him to doctors, mechanics and senior services. I accompanied him to college and community drama and music productions, and included him in our family gatherings.

Without a nuclear family of his own, Barry began sending me daily emails. Should a day pass when I didn’t receive a message, I was to check on him. As insurance for his safety and well-being, he issued me a spare key to his apartment.

The months passed. Barry’s difficulties with mobility and hearing loss led him to spend more and more time hermitted away in his apartment. He gave up the piano because it didn’t sound right to his failing ears. But he relished afternoons surrounded by fine classical recordings with his speakers on either side of his easy chair turned to their loudest volume. He read widely, in both English and Spanish, and wished for someone with whom to hone his conversational Spanish skills.

He readily showed scrap books of his stage performances to me. Years of varied productions and rave reviews of his acting prowess filled page after page in several volumes. We updated his Facebook page with copies of his old publicity photos. He loaned me recordings from the Golden Age of television. Fifty years after they premiered on television, I enjoyed episodes of “Gunsmoke,” “Perry Mason,” and “The Real McCoys” in which he was a featured guest star.

Together, on his computer, we traveled to a place in Mexico he longed to visit. From there we headed to Ecuador, to a fancy retirement community high in the mountains.

I brought him produce from my garden and fresh eggs from the hen house. The master gardener graciously accepted my humble vegetables. He even asked for more.

When my red spider lilies sent up flower spikes in September, I brought him one in a pot. The next day, we toured a Lycoris radiata festival in Japan, a field covered with the same dainty red petals.

I lamented the loss of a favorite araucana hen during the summer. The next day he wrote, “Saturday and perhaps as well as can be expected. Sorry to hear about your pet hen. I read that some chickens can live into their teens but average seems to be 5/6 years and maybe up to 10. Longevity may correspond to breeds. Breeds that have been bred for super egg production have short life spans. Also read that those developed as fast growing fryers have really short life spans even should they escape the skillet (none do). Araucanas were developed in Chile and perhaps are more susceptible to heat…dunno. How old was she?”

In October, a cactus I inherited from my father burst into rather rank-smelling blooms. The next day, Barry wrote, “Your plant is a Stephelia also known as Starfish Flower, Toad Plant and, yes!, Carrion Flower. There is a big variety of them with blooms in many different colors. You will find lots of photos of them on internet. Do a search for Dave’s Gardens where several are shown. They are pollinated as you saw by insects (flies, etc). However, the fly, though drawn to it due to the odor, gets no reward for pollinating as there is no nectar. Should the fly lay eggs on the flower the offspring will starve to death.”

Now my restless friend has located an apartment near good friends in California. He leaves Saturday, moving west again, following his dreams into the sunset. Even if we never meet again, I shall always remember this gentle man. His inquisitive mind forever seeks new knowledge. I will never forget how he stops in his labored shuffle, draws himself up a little taller and summons his stage voice to proclaim some tidbit of wisdom, humor, philosophy or (horrors!) theology. And how we laugh.

Though physical ailments limit his ability to enjoy familiar activities, he demonstrates resourcefulness to find new paths of fulfillment. Barry McGuire is a model of perpetual youth. He shows me how to keep your heart young, even as your body wilts around it. May I be as lucky to keep my dreams alive, and be as restless to follow my heart’s bidding! Here’s one Kansan that will miss him very much.

We are halfway through the infamous year of 2020 and perhaps an update on the life of Barry McGuire is in order. He spent all of a year in sunny southern California, and decided to move back to Kansas, where we had remodeled a small farmhouse near our own. The country life beckoned and he joyfully moved into the cottage, planted more flowers, entertained locals with a few magic illusions, and shared his passion for life, rich in experiences and loyalty to friends. After a year, he headed for another senior apartment, closer to groceries and doctors once again.

Thinking ahead towards the day that he might need nursing care, he put in an application to move to assisted living at the Actors Fund Home in New Jersey. In November of 2018, I was honored to assist in his move across the country east for that adventure, which was over within a few months. Disillusioned by policies of the administration of that facility, Barry decided he’d made a grave error in the move to assisted living. I was honored and delighted to assist him in his return to Kansas in May 2019. And surely now at age 90, his wanderlust satisfied, here he’ll stay among devoted friends until the great checkout.

Holed away against the COVID virus, he appreciates all the kind searches and notes from friends around the world, as well as regular contacts from friends nearby.

Surrounded by Giants

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn this journey through life, a chance meeting with another person occasionally develops into a unique and treasured friendship.  Today I honor World War II veteran and fellow writer Tom Junkins.

I met Tom at the first writing event I attended following my return to writing.  About the age of my own father, Tom had devoted his waning years to recording his life experiences.  He printed books, bound them, and offered them to his family and friends.  He threw himself enthusiastically into the writing life.

Together we traveled to monthly meetings.  He provided enthusiastic encouragement for my projects.  I helped him produce one of his memoir volumes.  In a conversational voice, Tom’s memoirs recorded his stories as if he spoke to his grandchildren.  When his health declined, he responded with wit and good humor, in the style I came to know as Tom’s unique voice.

He wrote, “On Friday June the third at five in the evening, my right leg went numb.  I called 911.  They put me in an ambulance and sent me to Via Christi, St. Francis.  They landed on me like a bunch of crows on road kill, ran all kinds of scans and tests, and scheduled surgery with a vascular surgeon for Sunday morning to remove a blood clot.”

Our days of writer’s meetings drew to a close with his move to the Veteran’s Home.  Tom still wrote daily, even as he struggled with growing physical limitations.  What have I learned from this writer?  He displayed grace and courage when facing his health issues.  In this way he reminded me of my own father.

But more than that, Tom’s dedication to the written word is testament to the vitality we find in books.  By writing stories for his family, Tom created a gift they can enjoy forever.  As I sit in my office, I am surrounded by books, by journals of my lost parents, and letters from long-gone relatives and friends.  They live through their words.  Their essence and personality shine into my life.  When I read words written by giants of my past, their voices echo in my mind.  And I know they are still with me, in words and in spirit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne week ago, Tom Junkins passed from this life. His words speak now only from pages he wrote. With his passing, he joined those giants of my past whose journals and letters provide sustenance for my future. I humbly repost this blog in his honor. I will long remember his enthusiasm for writing. Here’s to you, Tom. May your adventures continue into the next life.