Monday, October 31, 2011

A Life Lived Quietly and Well

Janice Eisenhart, 1947-2010

I suppose I knew Janice Eisenhart from the time she first came to our church in about 1981 She was a member of the church choir, and I recall her as an energetic, small, smiling woman who walked with a purpose and made friends easily.

Janice was by profession a children’s librarian. I was in a car with my longtime friend, school and public librarian Mike Bartlett, and we were leaving the parking lot of some event at night when Janice walked out among the cars. Mike, who was driving, said in that understated way of his, “I’d better not run over her. Children’s librarians are rare.”  And indeed Janice was a rare individual.

I was thinking about Janice, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last December when the Manassas Chorale Ensemble, which my wife directs and of which I am a part, sang at the dedication of a stained glass window given by family and friends to the Central Library of the Prince William Public Library System where Janice had worked for 38 years. The group sang two songs, “Mother Goose Madrigals,” which featured five nursery rhymes set in a madrigal style and Greg Gilpin’s “Why We Sing,” which celebrates the joys of friendship and music which Janice enjoyed so much. Over 100 people came out last Saturday through some of the nastiest wind, rain, snow, sleet and cold we have seen in a long while to honor Janice’s contribution to children, to families and to the community.

The window, designed by Jeanie Dunivin of Jeanie Designs located in Woodbridge,
depicts characters from many of Janice’s favorite children's books, including Thomas the Tank Engine and those from fairy tales.  Janice is shown at the top of the panel with music, singing, surrounded by not three but four blind mice. Director of Prince William Libraries Richard Murphy spoke about the light coming through the stained glass windows even on the cloudiest days at St. Chapelle church in Paris. He noted that the light would come through the window at the library as a reminder of the light of a life well lived in service to others.

Janice was a constant presence in the lives of many children who attended her weekly storytimes, even sharing children’s books with the children of children she had read to in years past.  As part of the dedication ceremony, one of the librarians (I’m sorry I didn’t get her name) read to the group the delightful popup book, The Large-Mouthed Frog.

Janice’s sisters and her mother were present for the ceremony. Her sister Nancy and her husband Pat made a gift in Janice’s name in May year to the Capital Campaign for the College of Business and Economics at Radford University, Janice’s alma mater.  In recognition of the gift,  the MBA library in the new building will be named the Janice Eisenhart MBA Library. Her sister said, “Janice loved books and the opportunities they provided to both enhance the education and expand the imagination of students.”

In addition, the library sponsored The First Annual Janice Eisenhart Memorial Program
this past Wednesday, October 26, 10:45 a.m. featuring Bob Brown’s Puppets in Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Janice was a particular fan of Bob Brown’s puppet shows.

Janice was also active in the Prince William Little Theatre. Her soprano voice was part of countless productions and she played the lead, Miss Maple, in the 1997 production of The Butler Did It. The greatest joy of her career was the opportunity to perform in Carnegie Hall in 2009 with the Chorale.

She was an active member of the Manassas Baptist Church for more than three decades, and a member of the JOY Sunday School class, which had several members in attendance at the dedication ceremony.

Janice also enjoyed travel. Whether it was an overnight to see a play with friends, travels with her sisters in the west and Alaska, or visits to her beloved London, she reveled in the experience and the opportunity to see new things. All of these experiences returned with her to the library to add new dimensions to her programs for children.

Janice was a short lady, not from any condition like dwarfism. She was jst short.  She endured stares and unkind comments about her size with dignity and grace. She shouldn’t have lived as long as she did with her condition, but nonetheless, her passing was sudden and shocking to those who knew and loved her. Her legacy is there for us in the beautiful window at the library, in the songs she sang, and in the children and adults whose lives she touched.

(To hear “Why We Sing,” navigate to  and click on the song title  listed last under 2006 songs.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

I had written about how we were going through my father’s household effects as a part of his move to an assisted living facility here in town.  When he and my mother moved to Manassas in 2003, they brought with them much of what they had on their farm in Loudoun County where they had lived for over 40 years.  Since my mom was unable to help with packing and paring down the items it was left to my dad and his sister to make the cuts. (I was out of town for some reason.) They sold some things and gave away others, packed the rest and moved it into town.

My dad lived in that house until 2008 when he moved to a retirement home.  He rented the house, and the possessions he didn’t take with him went into storage. When he moved to assisted living, he took what he needed with him. (These moves were done by friends, family members and boyfriends, whose assistance I deeply appreciate.)

And so, I and friends and relatives went through what was left, saved some of it, threw some of it away and marked the rest for donation.  We debated which agency to donate it to, and Becky mentioned a group that was collecting household items for the victims of Tropical Storm Lee who lived in the Holly Acres housing development. We decided that would be a good cause to contribute to, so last Saturday we loaded my nephew’s 30-foot trailer with all manner of household goods, and he drove it to the collection center at the B Thrifty store in Woodbridge. Our nephew, his assistant and several able-bodied young men from the sponsoring church and PTA quickly unloaded what we had brought and took them upstairs to a storage space.

The need for help continues.  The effort, sponsored by Belmont Elementary School, Fred Lynn Middle School, Freedom High School and Potomac Crest Baptist Church in Montclair, will run through the end of the year. to assist the victims of Tropical Storm Lee.

Belmont parent and Potomac Crest member Deanna Welch is coordinating the effort.  She may be reached at 1-910-494-3794 (her number was in a News and Messenger story about the relief effort. In that article she said clothes, shoes, toiletries and cash donations for future rent and security deposits are needed. Prince William County Public Schools and SPARK, the school division's education foundation, are accepting tax-deductible monetary donations.

According to the article, these donations may be submitted by credit card online via SPARK’s PayPal account, or by checks mailed to SPARK at P.O. Box 389, Manassas, VA 20108. Checks should be made payable to the PWCS Education Foundation and with “flood relief” in the memo line on checks or in the payment notes on PayPal.

We felt blessed to have had these things to donate, and I was impressed with these neighbors who stepped forward to help those who lost everything. I hope you’ll take some time to go through what you have and share with those who are less fortunate, if not with this effort, with any of the other charitable causes in the area.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

That Other Cat That Lives in Our House

A couple of people who read yesterday's post about cat food cans and my efforts to open one after the ring pull pulled right off wanted to know more about our auxiliary cat, Tuxedo.  Actually, yesterday's post wasn't about Nacho, my cat, but poor Tuxedo was scarcely mentioned at ll other than to say she is wacky, which she is. So I'll write about Tuxedo since she makes me smile.

Tuxedo belonged to Mrs. Karlene Pankey, a kind and gracious lady who was the mother of our brother-in-law Jerry Pankey, one of the most decent fellows I know. Mrs. Pankey passed away a couple of years ago and Tuxedo needed a new home.  We had met her before: she crawled along the floor on her stomach--I had never seen a cat do that--and she totally relaxed in a sprawled position.

Tuxedo belonged to a couple of other people before she got to us and as a result was rather disoriented. It has taken her the better part of a year to calm down. She greets me when I go into the studio each morning to feed her by crawling along the floor, but she saves her primary displays for her favorite, Becky goes in and Tuxedo climbs on her legs and totally relaxes. She is a good cat, and one we're pleased to have.

My hope is that Nacho and Tuxedo will learn to live together in peace. So may we.                                                                                                                   

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When Cat Food Goes Bad: An Uncanny Occurrence

If you've read this business for a while, you probably realize we have two cats, Nacho, who is "my" cat, a nine-year-old dilute tortie/Siamese mix who is affectionate but stubborn  and Tuxedo, Becky's car,  a wacky black and white shorthair who lives in the studio since she and Nacho do not get along.

Nacho was originally younger daughter Alyssa's cat which she picked out from the shelter after her cat Arco disappeared. Nacho, we discovered, had been abused: one of her eyes doesn't work right, the result, the vet said, of physical damage and one of the joints in her tail has been broken. I hope the hottest place in Hell is reserved for people who torture innocent animals. (Not nice, and probably not Christian, I know, but that's how strongly I feel about people who abuse animals.)

Alyssa was in college when she acquired Nacho, and I made her sign a solemn compact that when she graduated and left home, Nacho went with her.

Well, Alyssa finished school and came to collect her cat. In the meantime, Nacho and I had become best buds. The exchange between Alyssa and me went something like this:

Alyssa: "I've come to take my cat."
Me: "YOUR cat?  She's MY cat."
Alyssa: "But you made me sign a solemn compact that I would take her when I finished college."
Me: "I don't know what you're talking about."

I know, it's terribly to deceive one's child in such a way, but a cat is a cat and Nacho was my bud.  Here's a picture of her in a typical pose:
She's actually awake in this picture, which is unusual. She spends about 18 hours a day either sleeping or eating.  What a life!

Anyhow, this past six months or so, Nacho has been eating like there is no tomorrow. We had her checked by the wonderful vets at Prince William Animal Hospital, whom we have been taking our cats to for over thirty years. They could find nothing wrong with her.  So she porked up: here is a current shot of Her Pear-shapedness:

I tried to get a picture of her abeam, but she kept turning toward the camera (and me--she thought I had something for her to eat). Take my word for it: the cat is pear-shaped.

Now, Nacho has been eating canned food ever since we started feeding it to our deceased cat Trio a couple of years ago to help her gain weight. (Trio was not deceased when we fed her canned food. She was very much alive and died in July 2010.) So, Trio is gone, but it is Nacho who has gained the weight.

The cans of cat food have that little pull ring which works well when it works but when it doesn't...well, you know. I had a pull ring failure this evening. Here is the offending ring which separated itself from the can without opening it as they sometimes do. Oh, the humanity!

Naturally, when the ring pulled off without the top of the can, I did what any guy would do: I took out a can opener, and...

No, I didn't. I grabbed a sharp knife, though better of it, took a butter knife, and making like Bear Grylls in my kitchen, stabbed the top of the can repeatedly, hoping somehow it would give up and fly open.  Here is a picture of the crime scene:

(This shot was taken after I used a can opener on the can and took the yummy delicious-smelling [NOT!] cat food out and gave it to poor pitiful starving Nacho.)

So, after stabbing the can top didn't open it, I got the manual can opener out and took the top off like a civilized person. Actually, if we were truly organized we'd have an electric can opener like we used to about 25 years ago. It was my favorite appliance (is it wrong to have a favorite appliance?  Mine now is our GE refrigerator with ice and water through the door--ah, civilization!), but the power can opener broke one day and we never replaced it. Maybe it's time.

So, there's a moral here someplace. Maybe it's that "improvements" don't always work and sometimes you have to go back to an older technology(i.e. a map when your GPS loses you real good at night in a torrential rain). And, violence is not the answer. And, no matter how it's opened, wet cat food still smells awful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Sound of Music

I and a friend helped my father move into an assisted living facility today. Don't be sad--he was eager to make the move and the place is friendly, warm and bright.  He will be safe and well-taken care of and only three minutes away from us.  The activities associated with this took most of the day so I haven't had a chance to put together even a short blog.  So I'm going to use a News and Messenger column I wrote this past spring entitled "The Instruments of the Orchestra."  So, I am borrowing from myself. So did Handel (borrow from himself, not from me. I'm not THAT old.)

It came to me during the intermission of a symphony orchestra concert last spring that I could identify all the instruments in the orchestra by sound, which might have been because I couldn’t see the oboist, bassoonist or trumpet player until they stood up for a bow. I knew they were there, though. Now, being able to identify instruments in an orchestra is no big thing, especially if you are semi-musical as I am.  But it got me to thinking about how proud my elementary school teachers would have been of me if they had known I could do this. It was part of their mission, after all.

If my elementary school had a mission statement, which it didn’t since no one had thought of such a thing at the time, it would have been something like “to prepare boys and girls for further education and to make them civilized, cultured, and contributing members of society.” The school worked not only to improve us intellectually but also culturally.  I remember our sixth grade teacher telling us repeatedly, “You will not grow up to be a burden on society.  You will be ladies and gentlemen who will contribute to the good of the country and the world.”  Well, I have tried.

An important part of culture for our teachers was, of course, music, and music was an important part of school.  There was no such thing as  musical specialists then (who, by the way, do a wonderful job in our schools today) and so the classroom teacher led music, with singing and theory, music history and so on.  Part of this curriculum included listening to orchestral masterworks and learning the instruments of the orchestra. Almost all the teachers seized on Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to do this.

Unless you have lived in total seclusion for most of your life, no doubt you have heard Peter and the Wolf. If you’re like me, you had to listen to it several times a year. The main musical feature of Peter and the Wolf  is that each character is represented by an instrument and has a musical theme.  Peter’s is played by the strings.  There’s also a bird (flute), a duck (oboe), a cat (clarinet), grandfather (bassoon), the wolf (French horn) and hunters (woodwinds, timpani and bass drum).  Once you’ve heard the work a time or two, you’ve got those instruments. We knew them well by the time we went to intermediate school. It could have been worse, I suppose.  Some teachers had an “instruments of the orchestra” record and forced their students to play what my wife calls from her music degree days in college “drop the needle.” (Attention younger people: this was done with something called a record player which produced sound by running a special needle over a disk of vinyl.  I am not making this up.) I did get to play drop the needle with the instruments of the orchestra record in seventh grade and was not very good at it. Thank goodness for Peter and the Wolf.

Unfortunately my eight grade music class was taught by a lady who hated students and I think hated her job.  She made fun of the boys because our voices came out in unpredictable ways and was in general surly and irritable.  I sat in class hoping we would be invaded by aliens and taken off to other worlds where my teacher wouldn’t be. I think I managed to survive by fixing my attention on a large chart on the wall of the music room showing the instruments of the orchestra. I looked at it so long and so desperately I learned their names and eventually their sounds. I suppose it’s a good example of finding something useful in even a bad experience. It took me about eight years, but I eventually got back to loving and appreciating music. That helped me not be a burden on society, and for that I am grateful. I bet you are, too.

Monday, October 24, 2011


My mother passed away four years ago today from complications of Alzheimer’s.  In reality, we lost her long before that as she faded from us, recognizing friends and family members less and less and be becoming less and less active.  She was essentially bedridden for about four years, which was a blessing of sorts since many Alzheimer’s patients run, and that is truly difficult to deal with.

She was a kind, thoughtful,  intelligent lady who with my father raised my brother and me to try to be the same decent, compassionate person she was. I hope and believe we have been. She was my chief advocate, my primary encourager, and my good friend. I miss her terribly.

I do not have many physical signs that my mother was ever here. I kept a few things from her personal effects—her last wallet with her driver’s license, her tiny golden watch, her valedictory address from high school written in a clear hand, an award from the DeWitt Wallace Foundation during World War II, and  a few pictures (she hated having her picture taken). I do have a lot of memories. She loved music and singing and so do I. She loved and cultivated plants and particularly flowers, which I cannot, but whenever I see a beautiful abundance of flowers I think of her.

I was reminded in another way how my mother and I related as I was going through my father’s household goods in preparation for his move to an assisted living facility and preparing his house to be rented.  I was aware that there was a set of luggage in the attic, still in its original boxes, but I didn’t think much about them. I suppose that everyone who goes through their parents’ possessions in such a fashion thinks that there might be a treasure hidden among the ordinary detritus of everyday life. I found a lot of the ordinary, including some items which nonetheless struck chords of memory: the everyday china we used for years, dimly remembered hand-sewn quilts, even a strangely evocative metal casserole dish holder. But the luggage was different. I couldn’t remember having seen it, although my father said they used it a couple of times on car trips. The boxes were in poor condition, damaged by their stay in the high temperatures and humidity of the attic, and I assumed the luggage would be similarly affected.

I was wrong.  As I pulled each piece of sea foam green Lady Baltimore luggage from its box, I realized that it somehow had survived in pristine condition. The luggage was popular during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s and is not longer made, but spoke of  travel in a more elegant age. People routinely dressed up to take the train or to climb aboard propeller-driven aircraft. The set included a large Pullman case, a smaller “weekender,” and a ladies’ “train case” for cosmetics and other personal effects. This was classic hard-sided luggage without a shred of nylon or a trace of a roller wheel to be seen.

Curious about the value, I checked on line and found that the set, which originally retailed for $29.99, was going for fifteen times that on internet auction sites. I told my father, who was in favor of selling it. Fortunately, Becky saw it and said that, stacked up in a guest room, it would make a nice display accessory. I was glad that we would keep it.

I was also curious about the contents, if any. The keys were nowhere to be found, but locks of suitcases of this vintage are ridiculously easy to pick and I opened each one, not expecting to find much. For a literature major, it was a little like the prologue to The Scarlet Letter, in which the author putatively discovers in an ancient trunk a manuscript relating the story of Hester and Arthur and Roger and Pearl, along with the faded, gold embroidered letter “A”  itself.

I found a few ordinary effects in the cases, including some maps and pamphlets from an area in Florida where my brother once had a condo and which my parents visited several times. I also found something that would reduce me to tears.

I have always, from the time I learned how to write, wanted to be a writer. I was on the newspaper staff of our little mimeographed elementary school publication, all copies of which have vanished. I also wrote for my intermediate school, high school, college and community papers. My mother, as with everything else, encouraged me greatly, keeping clippings and showing them to friends whenever something was published. All these mementoes had been lost, or so I thought.

There in the weekender case was an article from my high school paper about the It’s Academic team from my school, circa 1964. I was an alternate on the team, but the people on the show were my good friends, and I remember the taping with Mac McGarry well. (We lost.) On the back of the article was a rather lame editorial I had written about Santa Claus making a visit to our editorial offices at the school. It was a sophomoric effort, even for the junior I was at the time, but it was a palpable connection to the woman who loved and nurtured and encouraged me beyond all measure. When I found these articles last week, I had a strange sense that she had somehow left them there for me to discover, four years after her passing, and that she knew that I would once again be encouraged by the interest and support that they represented.

At the end of The Philosopher’s Stone in the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore says to Harry, “If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever.” (Italics mine.)

And, I might add, encouragement forever.

So, indeed there are treasures to be found amid the ordinary objects of life. What I found in this vintage piece of luggage is to me more valuable than any pearl of great price. Rest in peace, Mom. And thank you.