Sweet Woods Garden, a familial cemetery, graces the top of a gentle slope on Karen Lauritzen’s property in Transylvania County. At his request, she buried Henry, her husband of twenty-two years there, and then, over the next ten years, her parents and two beloved aunts. She writes, I cared for all of them … and I buried them … with the thought … that I would have time to do what I wanted once their bodies no longer needed care and attention. Instead, she heeds the summons of The Five, whether at 3:00 a.m. in damp fog or on a sunny afternoon. Though the memoir of a woman who converses with her familial ghosts sounds ghoulish and dreary, Nothing Vanishes heartily affirms life, compassion, and spirituality. She writes, This place! This place centers me, brings me back to who I am. The Five keep me honest, keep me true.
She buried her parents and two aunts in Sweet Woods Garden because she values family relationships as mandatory and infinite contracts. After visiting Lauritzen for three days, her father, John, called to announce his move to North Carolina in three weeks. He also commanded her to find him an apartment, with a view of the French Broad River, in the retirement center close to her home. Since he had deserted Maribel, his wife of sixty-five years, when she was admitted to a skilled nursing facility with dementia, he felt no compunction about leaving her behind. Aunts Elna and Mimi, who announced that they were staying after a ten-hour drive from Arkansas, had taken … what they learned and made it benefit those they loved. Lauritzen gratefully guided their final years to repay decades of kindness and compassion.
Lauritzen writes that … the first messages I received from the cemetery were unsettling, scary even. Was I falling into the rabbit hole of grief? …
No, it’s something else. Messages. For me. From them. If she ignored their summons, she found an aspect of her garden askew or discerned a shadow flickering at the corner of her eye. They summoned her because they wanted to guide her through quandaries they had initiated.
Convinced that he was invincible, Henry died in the hospital still believing that he would beat his illness. Had he died at home, as Lauritzen wished, they could have had that precious final conversation. His death left her to raise sons John (age 12) and Jason (age 8). She especially needed guidance for John, born with neurological problems that caused developmental delays. A misdiagnosed foot fracture, at age 24, generated reflex sympathy dystrophy, a painfully crippling condition. Her parents’ marriage still raised disconcerting memories, especially after her father arrived in North Carolina with … every one of his character defects, avarice, lust, and covetousness, operating full tilt. Crucial to Lauritzen was learning if she was enough, especially for her sons. Did she have enough energy, courage, and love to be the mother they need?
Has listening to The Five in Sweet Woods Garden for fifteen years transformed Lauritzen? If her observations are a clue, then the answer is yes. For instance, most of us would consider seven lanes of traffic and hordes of people rushing about in a strange city madness pure and simple. But Lauritzen writes about Tianjin, China … I was strangely comfortable in this bustling city where so many abided in harmony and swayed in perfect rhythm like well-matched dancers. Outside a hospital swarming with patients arriving in the early morning, she singles out and admires two young men gently carrying an elderly woman into the hospital because … they would consider it a loss of face to allow her to walk those six steps unaided, alone. She writes that as she strolled around the city, Hundreds of dragonflies followed, chaperoning me … the brothers and sisters of the dragonflies that followed me to my family cemetery … in North Carolina. These are the perceptions of a woman who has braved many winters of the soul.
Rather than chapter breaks, Lauritzen’s memoir flows with the peaceful rhythm of a meditation. After each character profile, she invites her reader into Sweet Woods Garden to ponder shared familial issues such as bullying, mourning, and greediness or compassion, beauty, and harmony. She offers the alternative of reveling in her garden’s seasonal changes beginning in November when the … Rain has fallen all week pulling down the russet, gold and burnt-umber leaves to summer when the Oriental poppies’ red-orange petals blaze across the slope. The beauty of her garden invitations is that whichever her reader chooses, the alternative remains a viable option. As Lauritzen emphasizes repeatedly: Nothing Vanishes. Nothing. Of all the lessons she has learned from The Five, she is especially grateful for those two words because they opened many avenues to peace and transformation.
BIO: Before becoming an author Karen Lauritzen worked as a medical social worker in many agencies and organizations, including an in-home health care team for the elderly, dying and disabled; a dialysis center; a day center with schizophrenic patients; settlement houses; and agencies aiding the Jewish community. In her sixties, she returned to work in Tianjin, China, at the invitation of the hospital where her oldest son had been a patient. She writes short stories, poetry, and essays. Her work has been published in The Chrysalis Reader; WNC Woman magazine; and Women’s Spaces, Women’s Places, an anthology of women writers. Seat 7F, a story from Nothing Vanishes: Memoir of a Life Transformed, won an honorary mention in the 2010 Carpe Articulum Literary Awards. Karen is currently working on the final edits of Her Worldly Goods, her second book.
View from My Catio
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
Greetings Fans and Friends: Due to female politics, I will be sharing this column with Tabatha, our library cat. After reading WNC-Woman over Mary’s shoulder, she demanded to have her say. She is female, after all, with very definite views. Therefore, we will begin alternating months.
I expect Tabatha’s first column will address those ninnies wearing see-through gowns at Hollywood celebrity events: “Why don’t all of you put those patches, which you consider so well-placed, over your faces and see if you can avoid bumping into each other. With all that fake padding up front and behind, you’ll look like bumper cars bouncing off of each other. You’d be doing something entertaining for a change.” Tabatha is not known for diplomacy.
Purrs and cream,