Full of Years

Dancing with Sam

It’s the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and America lost one of its true patriots yesterday. It didn’t make the news broadcast, and she wasn’t pictured on the front page of the paper, but her name was Kay Ballard, and she was our neighbor and she was our friend.

She joined us for Thanksgiving this year, and as we worked our way around the table after dinner, sharing the things we’ve been most thankful for, there were many reminders of what’s truly important in life. The kids’ lists were kid-centric, of course. Family and friends and pets and toys and things of that nature, with family and friends listed out by name, in order to take up the rest of the space on the page we gave them! We laughed as we listened, we nodded in agreement, we squeezed hands when our hearts were hugged, and we reached for tissue when the family members we’d expect the least participation from, were the ones who brought us to tears, voicing their hearts at the table that evening.

Kay’s list was simple, short and straightforward, just like her. Family and friends, art, nature’s beauty, and Mr. Chester the cat were all thank-filled items on the list she brought. But with fervor and strength, at the table that night she especially gave thanks for her country, and for her freedom.

I would guess that having lived through WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Desert Storm, and our current decade plus long wars in the Middle East, there is nothing about the cost of those freedoms that she took for granted, and it showed.

Her husband was a Coast Guard veteran, and she was exceedingly proud of his service. She talked of him often, the love and respect so evident. They loved to dance and travel, and were definitely an ‘opposites attract.’ He was the spreadsheet to her paintbrush, but they both agreed on pride in country. We found this picture in her home last night, in a room filled with patriotic notions, articles, pictures and the like.

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I gained a greater understanding of just how much it meant to her when we asked her to raise the new Coast Guard flag on Illuminating Courage this past Memorial Day. I wish I had a picture of her face that evening, and could adequately describe the way she walked that flag to the pole with such dignity, carrying it as if she held the most precious gift. In a way, she was. …She was carrying freedom.

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Kay was a true patriot. She was also a wife, a mother, an artist, and a lover of all things beautiful. Admittedly, she was also private and proper and could definitely be feisty! Matt and I were both scolded on more than one occasion – me for things like handing her a cup of tea but not providing a saucer, and he for not remembering that she didn’t own a computer, was not GOING to own a computer, did not want anything to do with email, and could he please remember that not everyone likes that mode of communication and it wasn’t fair that she was excluded from knowing about goings-on in the neighborhood because of her choice not to use that technology. She ended that deluge of words with, “And that’s all I have to say.” And when she said that, she meant it. Done she was. We both learned important practical lessons about saucers and emails, but more importantly, she set an example for saying your piece and letting it go. The next day she’d be back to waving us over from her flower tending, giving Sadie loves, and inviting us in for tea.

We often bristle at people that state their minds like that, don’t we? We tend toward the proper and positive and layer our suggested transgressions in between praise and approval. We often work our way around rather than taking the straight shot through.

And there’s nothing wrong with either, but I have to say, I sort of respect Kay’s straight shot. It’s more than a little refreshing. There were no guessing games, and more than that, there was nothing to figure out how to let go of at the end. You just had to be able to take it in the middle I guess, and sometimes that middle could feel a little (or a lot!) like a gut punch. But that was Kay, sometimes spit but never with spite, all fire without any smoke.

Her art was quite the juxtaposition though. My goodness, could those hands create whatever beauty her eyes could see! Her home is filled with the most beautiful paintings, so many that she would rotate them seasonally. As I understand it, her art hangs in many galleries and private collections, and I can see why. Her talent and ability to take your heart to the place your eyes gaze was just amazing. Her paintings are varied and wide-ranging: some deep and layered, some fun and whimsical, many of anything and everything in between. We were blessed by her handmade cards, brought over in each new season, and always lovingly signed by Kay and Mr. Chester. It was her gift…and it was her gift. I’m so glad we’ve saved these cards each year.

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I think we’ll most remember her outdoors in the summertime. She loved the sunshine, and loved what it would make grow. She was constantly tending her flowers and plants, and when the afternoon would wane and her work was done, she’d sit and enjoy a cup of afternoon tea. (Complete with saucer of course!) It was a reminder for all of us to    just    slow   down    sometimes. Take time. Enjoy the fruits of our labor. Savor beauty and let it fill us. It will forever be my Kay takeaway, as I reach for the saucer to place under my tea and just take a moment.  A Kay-taught moment…

And oh there’s Mr. Chester the cat! She’d rearrange his toys each morning, picking out 5 or 6 and placing them in funny positions, like a monkey on its head or a mouse riding a cat. Everything Kay did was creative, and you could see this creativity and detail to life all throughout her home.

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Kay spent last Christmas with us too, and that’s when she got to know my mom. A week or so later, I came home to see my mom’s car on our street, but it wasn’t at our house, it was at Kay’s! Their friendship grew, and they’ve enjoyed lunch outings, home tours, art gallery exhibits and the like over this past year. Kay loved the invitations, and was always ready and always on time. …It’s how we knew something was very wrong last night, when she wasn’t at the door to meet them for their dinner plans.

She was 86, we were surprised to find out. Fit and independent and strong, but not too prideful to ask for help when she needed it. We were happy to be able to do household chores for her on occasion, and blessed to spend several holidays with her over the past few years. This past Thanksgiving was one of the best though. It’s hard to believe it was just a couple of weeks ago that we sat around the table as friends and family, sharing moments and creating memories.

Kay had a very robust conversation with another guest that night, sharing stories of time in Germany and Europe, and eventually moving into politics and the recent elections. But after a certain point, enough was enough and she said so. “No more politics, I want to enJOY the rest of this evening!” And that was that. And we did.

She left that night with a smile that matched our own, and hearts warmed through the sharing of them. It was a wonderful end to parts of which had been a tough day, and I think all of us will forever treasure the memory, complete with my nephew’s last line. As everyone was hugging and saying goodbye, and Kay was hugging the guest she had had the rather robust conversation with, in perfect commercial-tag-line-melody my nephew pipes out, “Every kiss begins with Kay.”

Well I don’t know about that, but I am sure her husband would have agreed (!) and it sure made us laugh to remember that on this somber day.

I glanced through some of those Thanksgiving pictures this morning, and showed this picture to my husband, both of us more than a little weary and worn, shell-shocked from all that goes along with finding earthly life at its end.

He glanced over, and then excitedly said, “Look, look at her fork…!”

“She kept her fork.”

Chance? Serendipitous? I guess you can decide. You see, my brother couldn’t join us for Thanksgiving this year, but he forwarded on a note to share. I’ve seen it in different forms over the years, but you can read it here: keep your fork

It’s a reminder of Hope. A reminder that the best is yet to come.

Kay kept her fork, and when she laid down for her nap yesterday, I think she probably fell asleep dreaming of dancing with her husband again.

And I think she probably enjoyed it so much, she just decided to continue.

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3 thoughts on “Dancing with Sam”

  1. So sorry for the loss of your friend. Sounds like you were both very lucky to have found each other. I would have enjoyed seeing her and your sweet Mom together.

  2. I am blown away at your ability to weave words together in such a beautiful tapestry. While we have never met, Kay came alive with your loving tribute. Do consider writing a book of your essays, thoughts and feelings. They touch my heart.

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