Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Look Away by Karen Stay Ahlstrom

I Look Away

I look away across the mountains.
I look away across the sea,
To my dear home where friends and loved ones
I pray someday will look to me.

When I was young, I'd go a ramblin.
O'er forest streams and hills I'd roam.
But when the evening brought the twilight,
I'd hear my mother call me home.

I look away across the mountains.
I look away across the sea,
To my dear home where friends and loved ones
I pray someday will look to me.

Yet since those days, I've wandered further:
Through prairie fair, to ocean foam.
I cannot hear my mother's voice now,
But still I feel her call me home.

I look away across the mountains.
I think of those I've left behind
And still I know I've found the treasure
I left my dear old home to find.

I've come away across the mountains
I've come away across the sea,
To my new home where friends and loved ones
I know each day are here with me.
--Karen Stay Ahlstrom

I heard the tune to this song played on Prairie Home Companion while driving to Border's Books with my dad on June 21st 2002. It was the sort of song you can hum along with even as you're hearing it for the first time. The next note is always the Right Note: the only one it could have been. As it ended, I said, "Wow, that was beautiful!" and Garrison Keillor said, "Wasn't that the most beautiful song you've heard in your life?" and I said, "Yes." When I got home, I looked it up on his site, played the sound clip for the rest of the family, and bought the CD. Mom said, "Now you really need to write the words to it." As I cut grass at the Metroparks the next day, I hummed the tune, and gradually the chorus came together. I wanted it to be wistful: the song of an immigrant remembering his motherland, and knowing he can never return. The first verse soon followed, but there I got stuck. I made several attempts at the rest of the song, for instance the first and third lines of the current second verse existed in one form or another, but it was never Right. In May of 2003, I was driving to the mall, in beautiful California, when it popped up on the compilation CD I was listening to. Because I was singing along with the other songs, I began to sing the chorus and verse I knew for this one. When I had done that, I kept singing, and the rest of the song came out. It was a bit garbled, but the substance was there, and that was enough. I parked my car, and wrote down the finished song. Finally it was Right. The wistful longing was still there, but the immigrant is better off where he is. He has made for himself a new home and family, and he is happy. I deliberately left the last line ambiguous because as long as he looks to the past, his old family will be with him in spirit and memory as well. The second line of the third verse is in the form it is so that it can be my song as well as the immigrant's. It was going to be "'Cross prairie fair and ocean foam" but I have come TO the ocean and found happiness. The chorus is a bit inaccurate, but I left it as it is (besides, I do have loved ones across the sea even if I didn't come from there). I hope you will listen to the music for this, as it is the entire reason for its being.

I've picked this poem today for a few reasons. As I was thinking about Grandma Fawnie, and what poem would honor her, I remembered that she had a binder full of poems, stories and quotations that she liked. I know there was quite a bit of Robert Frost in there, but more than that, I'm not sure. I hope that when people go through her things, I can get a photocopy or scan of that folder. I think that one of the other things in that folder was a copy of the story "The Man Without a Country." She would say that her mother thought that it was a true story, and thought it was terribly sad. That reminded me of this poem/song I wrote, and how Grandma cried when I sang it to her over the phone.

I know it's been a long time since I posted on my blog. Grandma Helen died just before Christmas, then I got depressed, then I got sick, then I stopped wanting to eat, then I went to Ohio for a month. Now Grandma Fawnie has died, and if I don't write about it now, I may never start posting again.

I have different memories about Grandma Fawnie from different parts of my life. When I was little, she was somebody I saw every couple of years. That made the visits very special, and saying goodbye very hard -- since I never knew when I'd see her again. Grandma was very creative, and made all sorts of fun things for us to play with. I especially remember the Strawberry Shortcake house and furniture -- most of which is now sitting in my closet waiting for Elizabeth to get old enough to care. Later, she made Barbie furniture out of plastic soda pop bottles (I also still have that set, or at least the cushions). There were spray bottle squirt guns (before she bought the Super Soakers), and matching games made of stickers on cardstock, and a store where you put magazine photos of food into shelves made of folded paper. She let us make real plaster casts when playing doctor with the dolls, and showed me how to dry flowers in silica sand and arrange them artfully on silver spoons. When I think of her house in East Millcreek, I think of the smell of rice on a sheet on the concrete floor of her garage, on a hot summer day waiting for a thunderstorm to arrive.

Grandma was a home-ec major in college, and loved to make fancy (and not so fancy) desserts. I remember that we once made a rainbow jello (we had to let each layer set in the refrigerator before boiling water for the next color's layer), but she also liked making lemon frosting and eating it on saltine crackers. It was from her that I learned the virtues of a little toaster oven for small batches of muffins and toasting sandwiches.

When I was in high school, and we went to Utah nearly every summer for one acronymmed reason or other (EFY, brothers going to BYU or the MTC, etc), I started to see her flaws. She could be melodramatic at times, especially when it came to her sisters and her health. I liked to say that the three sisters had been driving each other crazy for more than 70 years, and by this time, they'd got there. It seemed to me that getting sick was Grandma's body's way of dealing with stress -- it's a dangerous thing to let your body get in the habit of -- and I sometimes wonder if there's a way I can avoid doing the same thing.

When I went out to BYU, I really started having serious trouble with depression. Grandma and Grandpa were there for me at this really difficult time. When I just couldn't deal with school and roommates anymore, I would get on a bus and head up to Grandma's for the weekend. I'd dig in the dirt with Grandpa (we planted and harvested some very tasty potatoes), and Grandma would take care of me. She knew I loved strawberries, and I remember one time when I was sitting in the basement watching TV, and she brought me a beautiful tray of strawberries in a pretty glass bowl with a miniature jug of cream and a bowl of sugar to sprinkle over them with a tiny spoon. She introduced me to all her favorite old movies like Jane Eyre with Orson Wells (and every other version ever made of the same movie) or Little Women or Pride and Prejudice. We went to new movies too. I especially remember Shakespeare in Love and Life is Beautiful -- she was a wonderful person to go to a movie and cry with. There was a time in this period when I had to frequently list reasons not to kill myself in order to keep on living. The number one reason was always because it would make Grandma Fawnie sad. Her love and care made it possible for me to get to a time when I wanted to live for myself, and not just for her.

Grandma loved to make crafts and was incredibly creative. She'd come up with fabulous ideas, go all out working on whatever it was for a while, then be done with it and move on to something else (Superfriends costumes, doll furniture, greeting cards, etc) I think that a lot of my own creativity came through her and Mom. She was very supportive of my creative efforts growing up -- she took me to all kinds of fun craft and fabric stores. She loaned me her sewing machine so that I could make costumes for SCA events and my Early Mormon Clothing class when I was in college, and simply gushed over my creations when I brought them back to show her. She also loved to hear my poetry and singing, and one of the hand colored copies of my Good King Wenceslas book was for her.

After I moved away from Utah, I tried to keep in touch -- when I got my cell phone, I could call more often -- but I really felt bad that I couldn't be there for her as she got sicker and sicker after her stroke. One of the reasons I spent so much time with Grandma and Grandpa Stay was because there was honestly nothing I could do for Grandma Fawnie. I am deeply grateful for the the example of loving service she gave me. She taught me so much that I really wanted to know my other Grandma as well as I knew her, and being with Grandma Helen was an amazing blessing for me as well.

Saying goodbye this time was hard. Just like when I was little, I knew that when I said goodbye, that it would be for an impossibly long time, and not only did I not know when I'd see her again, I was sure that this would be the last time. We stopped at the nursing home on the way to the airport. Grandpa was giving her lunch, and as we came down the hall, we could hear her coughing because she has a hard time swallowing liquids. It was a frigtning sight and sound, and Mom had me take Elizabeth outside till they got her calmed down and breathing again. When we went back in, she was absent -- as she has been more and more often recently. She was awake, but not really aware of who we were and what we were saying. When I realized that she might not know or understand what I was saying, I said my goodbyes, hoping that somewhere her spirit heard me say how much she had meant in my life. I held her hand, and gave her a hug and a kiss. Then I told her we had to leave and get to the airport, and she was back, and said, "Ohhh," sadly. I don't remember whether she actually said, "Love you," or if I just got it from her look, but She was there, and said goodbye to me and Elizabeth. It's hard for me to believe it was coincidental that she died less than twenty-four hours later.

When I went to Ohio in September and again this last month, we took Elizabeth over to the nursing home to see Grandma Fawnie several times. Whenever we were there, Grandma seemed more alert than usual -- like she really wanted to spend some last precious moments with us as she was retreating from the rest of the world. I know she loved me, and loved Elizabeth. I loved her, and wish it would have been possible for Elizabeth to get to know her as well. Someday she will, just as I'll be able to meet the Great Grandmothers I've heard so much about. Until then, I'll honor Grandma Fawnie's legacy by playing her games with Elizabeth, getting out the toys that she made and I've cherished, and making new ones with whatever comes to hand (even if it's soda pop bottles and strawberry baskets).


  1. How sweet, Karen! Thank you for sharing...and the poem was wonderful! An awesome tribute and then some...

  2. I just cried the whole time I was reading. Very tender and sweet tribute to a great lady.

    Love, Kathey

  3. Very sweet. (I get a "page not found" on the music link.)

  4. This was very sweet! Dont stop blogging, I am a fan. And i just bought the book PLEASE STOP LAUGING AT ME... <3

  5. I remember going to EFY with you and staying with your Grandma and Grandpa Holt in the summer of 1992. They were very gracious to let a complete stranger stay with them. I'm sorry to hear of your Grandma's passing. Will Grandpa go back to Utah or stay in Ohio?

    Oh, and at first glance, I thought it was you in the second pic, but it was your mom! I never saw her with long looked just like her!

  6. Karen,
    It is wonderful to read a new story from you! I enjoyed reading your memories of your grandma. I got to visit with her a couple times and enjoyed her so much. I've noticed how much your mother when your age looked like you do now. I know your whole family will get lots of hugs in the few days just ahead. I'm so glad you all have each other to see you through the rough spots of life...
    phyllis, 3-26-2009

  7. It is so wonderful to read one of your blog posts again, Karen. I'm am so sad for you that in the past year you have lost three of your grandparents. I hope you know I've been thinking of you and praying for you.

    On a different note, you do look exactly like your mom! I could not believe the resemblance!

  8. So sorry to hear of your loss so soon after Grandma Stay. I hope things are settling down, and that Elizabeth had a great first birthday.

  9. Hey Karen,

    What a beautiful message, and poem! Thanks for sharing it with us!

  10. Thanks Karen.
    Those are great memories. You've done so much for your grandparents. It is a gift and a talent and hard work and selflessness (with I'm sure so much for you too) all in one. I really admire it.