Saturday, August 20, 2016

One hundred years of memories, and I can't wait to hear more

My grandmother Teresa, the one with the tiny chair 

I visited my dad's 100-year-old cousin today. (First takeaway from the visit: Please, God, let me have those genes. Not just the longevity, but the one for great hearing and beautiful skin. She looks fabulous and is sharp as can be.)

I've seen Jennie once or twice over 50-plus years, but Dad had a lot of cousins and everyone was scattered, so the children and grandchildren of those cousins don't all know one another. I recognize the surnames; besides Lavias, there are DeFinos and Sodas and Romeos and Punellis and many more that I can't recall. I'm friends on Facebook with first and second cousins I've seen probably only once, if at all.

I'm curious about this side of the family. On my mom's side, we were closer; I grew up very attached to my aunt and saw my Nana quite often. I look like that side of the family, and for whatever reason, I feel more connected to them.

But the Lavia genes are in there, too. The curls. The tendency to ruminate. The slender-ish legs and big bellies. The introversion. No doubt I'm my dad's daughter.

But Dad didn't talk much about his family, and I've always wanted to know so much more. So when Jennie sent me a photograph of my paternal grandparents after she cleared out her house to move into an assisted living community, I wanted to do better than send a thank-note.

She seemed happy I wanted to visit. I hope that when I left, she was as happy as I was that I had come.

I was delighted to listen to her talk. She showed me photos of her family, told me of her childhood in Des Moines and Chicago and about a boy who was sweet on her when she was 15. She told me about my dad and his brothers as young men -- "good-lookin', every one of them."

She brought to life relatives I'd never known. My paternal grandfather, her uncle and godfather, who died when I was 4, was a carpenter at Mercy Hospital just north of downtown and walked to and from work; sometimes she'd meet him on the sidewalk and talk to him a little before she reached his house. He was so talented with his hands and could build anything, she said. (This made me laugh at the memory of my unhandy dad, who relied an awful lot on duct tape.)

She loved my uncle, my dad's oldest brother -- the one my dad seemed to see and speak to in the days before he died. His name was Emilio, but he was called E.A. or Tony or Milly; in World War II, he was a prisoner of war in Japan. He survived, but died young, in his 50s. I was 9.

"Tony was the handsome one; since he lived in California, you know, he probably could have been in movies," Jennie said. "We were the same age, so he would have been 100, too. And probably would have still looked good."

She remembered, vaguely, my dad's little sister, who died tragically at age 5, and that the family was never quite the same afterward.

My dad, she said, was the funny little one who followed his older brothers around and was close to his mother, who died when he was 16. In what was, for me, the sweetest part of the conversation, Jennie described the grandmother I never knew as being "tired, you know, with all those boys running her ragged, and with cooking all the time, and she was sick so much."

She brought my grandmother to life for me by describing the tiny rocking chair that was hers; she was only about 4 feet 9 or 10 inches tall, and it was a chair made for a child. She would have rocked my dad in that little chair.

Jennie talked about her life, too; how difficult it had been a few years ago to bury her son, who died of lung cancer; how much she still misses her parents and the siblings she's lost. How difficult it was to leave her home on the south side, to sell or give away many of her possessions and try to find space in her tiny apartment for the others she couldn't bear to part with. How the new place is fine, but it's not home.

When I was young, I had relatives in, as we called them then, nursing homes. I didn't visit those relatives enough. And although I saw my dad several times a week, there were instances in which I complained about visiting him because I believed myself to be too busy.

Maybe it's because of the degree to which I miss him, and my aunt, and my grandparents, and all the others who are no longer around to tell me the stories I crave hearing. Maybe it's because in my line of work, I understand the value of older adults and their stories. Whatever the reason, I'm unspeakably grateful for today.

And I'll keep going to see Jennie as long as she'll have me.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"You Really, Really Mattered."

He had me at horse heads.

It was my first day at my new job. First day in a new industry. I was nervous. Had I made the right decision? Would people like me, and would I like them?

I walked up and down rows of cubes, my manager introducing me to my new co-workers. And at the end of one row was a dark office.

"Charles sits there," my manager said. "He's traveling, but you'll meet him soon. Charles is a character. You'll like him."

I peeked inside the partially open door and saw ... horse heads, At least a dozen of them. Not the heads of real horses, thankfully, but various and sundry heads. Ceramic ones. Plaster ones. Drawings. Paintings.

I had noticed no one else kept a lot of personal effects in their work spaces. I planned to, so I knew that in spite of the fact that I wasn't really a horse person, I'd likely have something in common with this guy.

It took about a second to realize my hunch was right. Charles showed up a week later, an imposing figure in a too-big sport jacket and too-big pants. I was in the break room, putting together my breakfast.

"Girl, that looks good!" he said, eyeing my food. "I'm Charles Hall, and as you might guess, I like to eat."


We talked that morning as if we'd known each other for a long time. I learned he was in the midst of losing weight -- he was down 50 pounds despite almost-constant travel, and as I had some upcoming travel on my schedule as well, he shared some tips.

He told me that yes, he loved horses, and his children, and his grandchildren, and his work. He was a nurse who served as the organization's director of clinical excellence, and his passion for his job was evident.

I quickly came to realize passion was an integral part of Charles. Whether it was a team member's birthday, recognition of an award someone had received or simply a sunny day, Charles celebrated.

He delivered handmade birthday and anniversary cards to every team member, and probably to every resident in every community our company owned. He was a giver of gifts -- meaningful ones -- and he expected and desired no recognition for his generosity.

He was the first to volunteer to help with a project and the last to leave an event. Often, whether or not the occasion called for it, he wore a tuxedo, He owned three, he told me, in various colors.

When Christmastime drew near during my first year in that job, Charles became aware that a team member was in the midst of some personal difficulties, including financial issues. Charles didn't ask for details -- all he needed to hear was that because of a situation beyond a child's control, that child probably would not have much under the tree on Christmas morning.

Quietly, he slipped the team member an envelope of money, enough for presents and a tree. He insisted the team member accept it, and his only demand was that no one be told.

It doesn't matter who knows now, sadly, as Charles isn't around to hear the praise that would certainly surround and embarrass him. He passed away this week, after a cancer battle that he fought with a few trusted friends by his side. He had limited any news of his daily struggles to a small group, so as not to trouble anyone or disrupt life at the office, and his quick decline was devastating to many.


Companies often invest a great deal of time and resources in something they call "culture." I've worked for a lot of organizations, and all of them either took pride in or were working to enhance their cultures -- essentially, their environment. Their ambiance. What it feels like to work in that space. The "face" team members show to each other and to the external community.

It struck me as Charles fought his fight that although the people who loved him would surely miss his compassion and passion and consistent drive to make everything and everyone around him better, entire groups of people -- whether their members knew him well or not -- would be deprived of the way Charles impacted entire cultures. And that's a shame.

It also struck me that companies could learn much from the example that Charles didn't even know he was setting. Everything was organic with him; it wasn't "let's put a plan together" to improve this or that.

It simply came down to the fact that he was a naturally kind and loving person. His faith was a part of that -- not just what he believed, but the way he lived that faith. It was with selflessness, a deep desire to do unto others.

And then, it was the fact that it didn't occur to him, thank goodness, to censor himself. He loved, genuinely and openly. He didn't care who was watching, or whether he might be judged.

Charles also didn't care about being right. He probably didn't care a lot about being successful as "success" is defined by others. He dressed professionally, but didn't care about labels. If he wanted to wear cowboy boots, he wore cowboy boots. He was proud of his bald head, saying -- along the lines of the Velveteen Rabbit -- that he had lost every hair worrying about someone he loved.

Charles wasn't about exteriors. He cared about making others feel loved. Valued, Treasured, even.

Three months ago, I left the company at which Charles and I had worked together, Business is business; needs and positions change. Opportunities present. People leave jobs, and the world goes 'round.

But leaving was tough, and I was hurting. I missed many people with whom I had formed close relationships. Charles and I had exchanged notes, and he understood and validated the reasons for my sadness.

One day shortly after I started my new position, I arrived home to find a gift on my front porch. I opened it, and it was personal and lovely.

The card, though, is something I'll carry with me always. It's something that will influence the way I treat people. The way I view and try to influence that intangible thing we call "culture."

It was handmade, of course, and signed with a flourish.

"Don't forget," Charles had written, "that you really, really mattered."

Charles: I dearly hope that you know, from your new vantage point, how very much you did, too.