“My goal is to spoil my clients, “ Kae Beth Rosenberg says, “to make them wonder how they got along without me.” Kae Beth is a home health care worker. She and her mother have a business called “Just Like Family” which provides a variety of services, including end-of-life care.
“We don’t take the place of family,” she says, “but we provide in-home support to people who are dealing with difficult situations.” Dying might be the most difficult, but Kae Beth is comfortable even in this circumstance.
“I don’t want to die,” she says, “but it’s not scary to me because I’ve experienced it so many times. Most dying people are curious about the process, whether they say so or not.”
She makes a comparison. “It’s a struggle to go from this life to the next, like a baby being born. The person wants to stay here and may need reassurance that it’s all right to go. That the survivors will be fine. We strive to make it peaceful.”
“I get to enjoy quality time with people,” Kae Beth says. “Every client has taught me something. I’ve learned to cherish every moment and enjoy the little things. To laugh more.”
I am spending the afternoon with a five-year-old. Since my granddaughters are teen-agers, I have to borrow other people’s little children in order to play dolls, read fairy tales, and color in coloring books. Sylvie is a former neighbor and now that her family has moved across town, I drive to pick her up. We arrange her child seat in the back and buckle her in.
At my house, we revisit the Cabbage Patch dolls. “How old are Lisa and Leslie?” Sylvie asks. I think back to when my daughter received them and calculate about 30 years. “They don’t look that old,” Sylvie remarks. No, they still look like babies—a little the worse for wear but not adults. Dolls do not have to grow up, to define themselves in a world of huge, autonomous beings.
Sylvie is doing that, however. When I ask if she’s going to color the stars yellow, she says, “No, it’s too much work.” I grudgingly respect her independence. When we leave my house, she asks, “Can I open the door?” She means the car. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was important to her. Autonomy comes in many steps, most of which I’ve forgotten.
“I know I’ll find a copy,” Amy Barritt says. “Someone has one.” She is talking about a book called “The History of Buckley,” a little town south of Traverse City. Why does she care? Because Amy has a passion for research and because she’s the Special Collections Librarian at Traverse Area District Library. “It’s my personal mission to build our local history program,” she says.
Growing up in Kingsley, another little town south of Traverse City, Amy counts as one of her successes finding the records of the Kingsley Farmers’ Coop. “The building is still there,” she says, “It’s a slice of regional history.”
“Research requires a certain skill set,” Amy says, and lists “tenacity” first. “It’s the thrill of the hunt and the rush when you find what you’re looking for.” She also helps other people find what they’re looking for when she staffs the Reference Desk. “The questions are seasonal,” she says. “Like gardening in the spring, canning in the fall. We’re a how-to culture and we like to do it ourselves.”
“I want people to have access to information in whatever way fits for them,” Amy says, “whether it’s at home, standing in the grocery line, or here at the library.”
A good friend is dying and I contact his wife to set up a time to visit. He and I have shared meaningful conversations and we need one now. Ten minutes after I arrive, however, a golfing buddy drops in and the three of us chat about local events.
Ten minutes after that, a woman colleague drops in with a bowl of chili. The four of us chat about local events. I don’t want to talk about local events; that’s why I set up a time for a private visit. Then I remind myself it’s not about me. It’s about my friend and he seems to be enjoying all this attention and affection, lying in a hospital bed in his living room.
I stay an hour and the golfing buddy is still there when I leave. And I reflect as I’m driving home that the world is divided into two kinds of people: the Drop-Inners and the Make-an-Appointmenters. I’m clearly in the latter group.
I wish I weren’t. All my life I’ve wanted to be more spontaneous, flexible, go-with-the-flow. But trying to be spontaneous is a contradiction in terms. In my next life I might drop in on you, but for now—I’ll call ahead.
“I’m an advocate for amateurism,” Eric Hines says, “which means you love what you do.” What Eric does is manage WNMC, the radio station at Northwestern Michigan College. “Radio is increasingly homogenized,” he says. “Fewer people are doing adventurous things. We’re a place for people to do locally-focused radio that isn’t professional.”
“I push on my DJs,” Eric says. “Don’t make it perfect; make it good.” By “good,” he means something to engage the audience—which is a very diverse group. “Our bread and butter is music,” Eric says. “Jazz, naturally, and also world music—which I love because I grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in South Philadelphia hearing salsa. In many cultures, music is more than entertainment. It carries the news.”
“One of our core things is to feature local musicians live in the studio,” he says. “I’m big on spontaneity and sincerity—and having it go out in the moment with no editing. I hate perfectionism.”
All this happens with the help of 85 volunteers. “I’m not a people person,” Eric says, “but I love being with these folks. They’re plugged into the community and each one has something personal to bring to the air. A passion.”
I don’t know where I first got the message that perfection is a goal. Somehow, I grew up trying to achieve it. Trying to get A’s in school to please my dad, trying to look like a movie star to please the boys. Trying and trying.
But even when I got an A, my father asked about my other grades. And when my hair curled just right there was a pimple on my chin. You’d think I’d figure out that perfection was impossible but instead I just tried harder.
Once or twice, everything came together. Many years ago I was visiting a boyfriend in California and we were going to a party at the home of some famous Hollywood person. On that evening, I managed to assemble just the right hair and skin and dress.
“This is it,” I thought. “I’m here.” But as I was stepping down into the host’s sunken living room, I stumbled and fell flat on my rear end. A bruise the size and color of an eggplant would be the result. Along with the reminder about perfection. It’s not only an impossible goal; it’s the wrong goal. A lesson I’ve been learning—like all the others—imperfectly.
“When I was in high school I got a job with a construction framing crew,” Jeff Salonen says. “I fell in love with it, seeing things come together.” Today, Jeff works for Creative Kitchens in Traverse
Traverse City and he still enjoys seeing things come together. “I get to know people,” he says. “Find out what they want—and then design something that makes the dream fit the budget.”
Why kitchens? “I love to cook,” Jeff says. “To entertain—and everybody gathers in the kitchen.” He likes to organize the space so that things are where they should be. “When you reach for a knife, you find it.”
“Sure, there are computer programs that can design your kitchen,” he says, “but it might not be balanced or functional. Each customer has individual needs. I work to build a relationship,” Jeff says, “develop trust, and let the product sell itself. I’m a people person. If I make a mistake, I take care of it.”
He admits he works long hours. “We can be at Disney World and I’ll get a call—and I can tell someone exactly what needs to be done. I’ve got a big heart and a conscience, so I want people to be happy.”
The shoe repairman glances up as I walk into his tiny shop.
“I’m having my kitchen remodeled,” I say, “and when the guys pulled the cabinets off the walls, they found this in the rafters.” I haul a leather boot out of my backpack. “I’m hoping you can tell me something about it.”
“It’s old,” he says with a half-smile. “Probably fifty years. Star brand or Wolverine.” I’d noticed that the boot had been re-soled and re-heeled, rather crudely.
“Did those repairs himself,” the man says. “Everybody had their own last.” I don’t know what he means. “L-A-S-T,” he says and points to the metal form of an upside-down shoe anchored to his bench. “Don’t you wonder how the boot got into the rafters?” I ask but the repairman isn’t interested in that part of the story. He is showing me some old lasts on a shelf, attached to stumps.
“Used them to last a shoe,” he says, turning the word into a verb. I think about how people used to try hard to last things. Today, almost everything is disposable. And I leave his shop wishing we could last more of what we have—boots, clothes, computers, friendships, marriages. All of it.
I first met Helen Milliken at a political gathering at her house—and noticed a book about the Himalayas on her table. She had always wanted to go there, she said. “Me, too,” I added and a few months later she called me.