Recently I celebrated my 83d birthday. Birthdays are a good time for reflection and the dogwoods pictured above provide good material for reflection. They were both planted thirty years ago. I have not always loved dogwoods. As a child when I learned the legend of the dogwood – that it was the wood used to make the cross that Christ was crucified on, I didn’t want to have anything to do with dogwoods. And then I learned the rest of the legend. After the Crucifixion God punished the dogwood and shrunk it in size and twisted its branches. But God also gave the dogwood a beautiful flower whose four petals could be thought of as being in the shape of the Cross. With the passage of time I decided that in giving the dogwood such a beautiful flower God was ok with my being a dogwood fan.
The two dogwoods pictured have always had very different growing schedules. The one to the right as you come out our front door is very robust. In early spring as soon as the weather starts to warm this tree with its new leaves and buds is truly magnificent. The tree to the left is about two weeks behind in its growth schedule but when it finally reaches full bloom it is just as magnificent. Perhaps not quite as robust but it definitely has a very appealing delicate beauty. Makes me think about the various stages of human growth. So often our physical growth does not match our internal thinking, feeling, intellectual growth.
When I was in sixth grade I was five feet six inches tall – the height I stayed at till my seventies when I started to head back down again. There were nine boys and nine girls in my class. We were part of the last class of February students in the New York State school system. I started kindergarten in February, grade school, and high school and college – all in February. February students spent the Fall of the school year sharing a room with the incoming September students as the oldest in the class. And then in February when we moved up a grade we became the youngest in the class as we now shared a classroom with those a half year ahead who would be moving to a new grade in June. The September students were at least forty in number – so that made the average class size about sixty with just one classroom and one home room teacher per grade. It was a small parochial school with an amazing cast of teachers. The lower grades were on the first floor in four separate classrooms , the higher grades, fifth to eighth were on the second floor.
I remember standing at the bottom of the school stairs, looking up, longing for the day when I would belong on the second floor. I was shy and very conscious of my height. My best friend, Gracie, was several months older and about five inches shorter than me. When we were thirteen we decided that the upcoming halloween would be our last “trick or treat” outing. I only went this time because Gracie asked me to. Since I looked older I was very conscious of the hype that painted going “trick or treating” as a fun time for young children. The first house we went to was a cruel blow to my self confidence. The woman who opened the door “oohed” and “ahed” over Gracie’s costume and though she gave me some candy, she also asked if I didn’t think I was too old to be making the halloween rounds.
I don’t know what years are the toughest as we struggle to develop and learn our God given gifts – I believe they are different for different folks. The two dogwoods in front of our house are both equally beautiful and each has come to their beauty on their own tree life schedule. When I was young I thought school was the source of all knowledge – that when you graduated you just rounded out your school knowledge. Little did I realize the scope of the world knowledge that awaited me.
By senior year of high school my social development started to catch up with my academic side. To my parents delight I now cared about my appearance. I am not sure if I had ever focused on the fact that I had a lot of freckles. Once after a basketball game I went with some friends to a pizza parlor. There were about ten of us who went. We were seated at a two sided table where those on my side were facing a mirrored wall. This was not the nerdy group that I usually hung out with, but they were very friendly and I was happy to be there with them. As I looked in the mirrored wall there was one girl who for a second I didn’t recognize, and then I realized that freckled face was my own. How many of of us go through life without ever really taking a good look at ourselves. This was my lightbulb moment.
High school graduation was on a Sunday night and then two days later I started college. I was in a rush to move on to the next phase of my life. My plan was to be a teacher and eventually to go to law school. The teacher part was because I liked school and the law plan as I now look back was probably because that was what my parents did. I commuted to college in New York City. One morning when I was riding the subway and hanging on to one of the ceiling straps since it was rush hour and I had been unable to get a seat, to pass the time I started reading the many ads that lined the walls of the subway cars. I kept going back to one posted by the American Red Cross that advertised a home nursing course. I found the content of the course very appealing: first aide; how to cope with a medical emergency; signs and symptoms of various illnesses. Later that day when again on the subway, heading home, I looked for the Red Cross ad. It was truly another lightbulb moment for me. It was early March, I was in the process of making a novena that I choose the right direction in my college courses. Within about a week, with my parents blessing I made an appointment with the college guidance counselor to learn about various nursing programs. I was very excited. I felt like my prayers were being answered, that I was being directed into a nursing career. When I learned of the nursing program that Cornell University – New York Hospital offered, I never applied anywhere else.
Lightbulb moments are special times of clarity – I have always looked on them as answers to prayer. There are unexpected pleasures in aging. In this second half of life I find meaning in the words of Harvard professor, Dan Gilbert: “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished”.