It’s just a puzzle. It took me a while to come with a name for this blog that both suited me and was available as a domain name. It does fit. It’s a phrase that comforts me when conditions around me — personal, political, societal — seem beyond repair. It’s what I used to say to calm students headed for standardized tests, and it was effective with some of them (those that enjoyed puzzles), not others. I, as you know, do love puzzles, especially jigsaws and crosswords, so it works for me. Believe me, I understand that when folks, including myself, are in real distress, advising them to make “It’s just a puzzle” their mantra would not be helpful, but for quotidian bothers and self-induced emotional turmoil, it’s magic. I’m spending hours each week on jigsaws, and only feel mildly guilty about it… not enough to stop. One reason for my infrequent blog posts is that until a jigsaw is finished, working on it seems to be my highest priority. I was finally able to get to writing this because I didn’t allow myself to open a new one when I finished this one yesterday.
Perhaps because I’ve adopted a puzzle mindset, I continue to enjoy my life to an unprecedented and unexpected degree. It’s not that I have no tasks, duties or deadlines, but that somehow, miraculously, those “musts” are getting done without my riding herd on myself. I find myself actually wanting to prepare for a student, fulfill my committee leadership duties, organize Zoom gatherings, or call a friend. My dreams at night, for some reason, are where my anxiety and negative thoughts manifest themselves — but at least I sleep through them. My first moments of the day are spent climbing up through cobwebs of mild anxiety and frustration, but they are soon swept away, and I’m ready to roll.
So… me and my old folks — where to begin? Well, if I’m going in chronological order, that’s obvious. It started with Codie. Perhaps she is the reason that, throughout my life, wherever I live and whatever I’m doing, I have befriended people who are, shall we say, senior to myself, and considered many of them close friends. Age difference, as far as I can tell, is no barrier to deep friendships. It’s not a matter of conscious effort, it just happens. [I have close friends among much younger folks as well. In fact, I even find myself calling my students “friend” rather than using other endearments.]
Cora Thisbe Peck, AKA “Codie” (1880-1976) came into my family’s life in 1958 when I was six and she was 77 years old. Here’s a description of our meeting Codie from my mom, Dorothy: “We became acquainted with her a few weeks before Mark [the youngest of five kids] was born. She was sitting in front of us at church, turned around and said to me, “Every young mother needs a day out before her baby arrives. Won’t you bring your little girl [my sister Debra] by so that you can do that?” That visit never happened but our relationship through the eighteen years that followed could truly be described as a gift from God.”
Codie became family. She owned a tiny house in Colorado Springs with a garden alongside, where she had a childcare business. The house was dubbed “Wee Acres” as the sign in front, which I now count among my treasures, announced. It was a joy to spend time there with her, especially when I was the only guest. I remember playing Scrabble and other games with her. As I recall, she did not let me win, but was very encouraging. We also went on walks and felt comfortable together whether chatting or each quietly occupied in reading or another activity. She was so good at making me feel valued and loved, and she did the same for so many other children.
Codie took care of us on the rare occasions when our parents were out of town, and easily kept things running smoothly. My dad, who got far more positive attention from her than from my mom, would often pick her up on his way home from work and she would stay for dinner, the night, or for a couple of days. Once in a while, we would each find a little gift by our places at the table: a coffee mug or a set of pillowcases, bargains she had run across, I assume. She once accompanied us on a memorable camping trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument near Alamosa, Colorado. Wearing her ever-present raincoat, she sat in the warm sand and took in the gorgeous view of the dunes surrounded on three sides by mountains. She must have had to sleep in the back seat of the car, since the 7′ x 7′ floor space of the tent part of our camper was where we five kids slept.
I worked with Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation during summers between college years running day camps at various parks and schools. One summer, the school where I was stationed was a couple of blocks from where Codie was living with Mrs. Jackson, who was her caretaker. Every day during my lunch break, I walked there and Mrs. J would serve me a bologna sandwich on white bread, unadorned with mayo or mustard. I choked it down in order to spend a little time with Codie, and after eating, Codie insisted that I lie down for 10 minutes to rest. Because it was she who asked me to, I did it, even though I wasn’t at all tired. We also spent time in conversation, me relating adventures from my morning with the kids, Codie listening lovingly and telling stories of her own. She loved kids as much as I did (and do). She once asked me to pluck the hairs from her chin as she sat backlit by a window. It felt like a privilege to give her that personal attention: I told myself she would not have asked that of just anyone.
Over the years, especially after I went off to college, Codie and I became closer through frequent “snail mail.” Her letters, several of which I kept, sometimes included something she cut out of a magazine, often a poem. Obviously, I don’t have the letters I wrote to her, but I guess they recounted stories about classes, friends, and general reflections. Her replies were so dear. After graduating from Whitworth College in Spokane, I spent one more summer in Colorado Springs, then moved back to Spokane, where my brother Andrew and his wife Deborah lived. I was living in a house that a classmate’s parents had bought to retire in a couple of years later. They wanted someone to live there in the meantime, and since I could do so rent-free, I jumped on it. I was making around $1.80/hour, which didn’t go very far even then, but I felt rich. I always had enough money to go out for coffee and sit and read — that was my definition of wealth.
Heady with my independence, I decided to have a housewarming party. I had no car, so I walked 5 or 6 blocks to the nearest grocery store to get provisions, including various foodstuffs and two gallons of apple cider. As I walked out to the parking lot with my basket full of groceries, it dawned on me that there was no way for me to carry everything home without making numerous trips, so I asked to borrow the cart, promising to bring it back soon. I wrote to Codie about this, and here is her letter in reply, transcribed below in case you have trouble reading it. As you see, she made enthusiastic use of underlining. After the passage of 48 years, I’m glad I’m finally taking her advice to “throw relaxation into your work often as possible.” She’s right: “Afterward you can accomplish so much more.”
Codie’s love of plants, and her gift to the family of her botanical specimen collection, inspired me to take a botany class in college. I didn’t absorb the science, prevailing on a friend to do the dissections to determine whether a flower was a “monocot” or “dicot.” I might have been able to define those words back then, but simply did not have the patience to do the work it took to see the distinction. Science has never been my forte, but I loved finding and pressing flowers, then mounting them (with white glue) to paper and lettering their genus and species on each for my final project. I now have two of Codie’s specimens and one of my own framed on the wall of my “outer office.” Taking photos of anything behind glass is not something I excel at, but here are my best efforts. As I said, I used white glue to affix mine (the columbine on the right) to the paper, but Codie’s, dated 1898, were sewn onto the paper with tiny stitches. I wish the photos allowed you to see Codie’s very fine, faint calligraphy of the genus/species/variety of each: Left: Ranunculaceae aquilegia canadensis “Canada Columbine” Middle: Liliaceae ornithogalum umbellatum “Star-of-Bethlehem” Right: Ranunculaceae aquilegia chrysantha “Yellow Columbine”
I know that over the years, Codie told me stories about her life; the ones I remember best were about her time working in the book section of a large department store and her life in New England prior to moving to Colorado Springs. My mother talked to her at length many times, though, learning much more about her life. In this story of the history of the many items the family either bought or “inherited” from Codie, Mom included all the biographical details she had gleaned, and I have added photos of Codie’s possessions that ended up with me.
Like many kind and trusting people, Codie was once taken advantage of by the father of one of the children she cared for. He offered to help her invest her money and left her penniless. Perhaps because of this, at the age of 88, Codie asked my dad whether he could use some help at his office. (He sold insurance for Prudential.) He hired her to do filing, for which he paid her — probably not much, but Codie needed the money to supplement Social Security and wanted to be busy and useful. Unfortunately, when walking out of his office one evening, she did not see a small step, so fell and broke her hip. That ended her independence, but did not break her spirit. She was forced to find “assisted living” situations, and for several years lived in one room of a house where she was provided room, board and personal care. Eventually, she had to move to a nursing home, a dreadful place as I remember it. Some of the few items she still owned were stolen from her while she slept, yet she continued to be a gracious hostess when we all visited her for the last time the summer before she died.
I am now 69, and am in the initial stages of the inevitable process of having my life get smaller, saying goodbye to activities I was previously able to enjoy. One that I regret is not being able to run around and throw/catch Frisbees anymore; that was my only semi-successful athletic experience ever. I’m fortunate to not have many physical limitations (thanks to the miracle of joint replacement surgeries — both hips and one knee), and I’m elated that my advancing age gives me a reasonable excuse to turn down offers to ski, hike, dance and run, none of which I ever enjoyed. I am still strong, though, and can walk and stay active and useful, for which I’m grateful. I know, however, that it will not always be so.
Codie dwells in my memory and my heart as my premier role model. Her interest in other people and her open, curious nature made her resilient. No matter how much of her life was whittled away, when she could have complained, she instead adjusted to circumstance and managed to be fully alive. I hope I’ll be able to pull off an approximation of that grace in the coming years.
I recently discovered a cassette tape labeled with a piece of masking tape with my mother’s handwriting on it: “family messages to Susan incl. Codie.” My heart skipped a beat or two, and I inserted it into my ancient cassette player, where it was immediately “eaten up” by the machine, and I could not even eject the tape. I told myself, “Oh, well, until this moment, I didn’t even remember this existed” in an effort to soothe myself, but decided to make an attempt to resurrect it. I took it to a digital transfer service nearby, told them to feel free to break the player and see if the message was still there. Miraculously, it was! They both digitized it onto a flash drive and made a new cassette.
Apparently, in 1971, I made a very silly cassette tape with my dorm friends and sent it to the family, so they reciprocated by sending me one of them. The voices on the recorder were not quite the ones I remember; all seemed a little faster and higher in pitch than the ones in my memory. Sam, our post-production sound guy, was able to slow the recording down about 5%, which made such a difference. These are my family’s genuine voices speaking to me from 50 years ago!
My sister Deb, age 17, started with the story of her imminent departure for Mexico on a church project. Then my brother Mark, age 13, who was taking drum lessons, offered a sample of his playing (which was actually an excerpt of an LP of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly). He went on to tell me about what was happening at school, where he really enjoyed shop class, but not much else. He then passed the microphone to Codie, who described a flight she had recently taken from Phoenix to Denver. Amazing and wonderful to hear her voice again! Here’s her message:
My mom and dad followed with their own messages. As in our Sunday phone calls when I was away at college, Dad let Mom do most of the talking. She talked about all kinds of things, and Dad, true to form, informed me in his short message that what Mark claimed was his own drum-playing was actually a recording… as if I didn’t know. He then apologized for spilling the beans. It is so good to have all their voices captured on “tape.” What a precious find!
More on my elderly friends next time. Now for a word from one of my young ones (who is now 47 or so)…