Carolyn Wing Greenlee

Beauty for Ashes

Dear Ones,

Of all the years of my life, this one has contained the most change. Though my husband and my father joined my mom in Heaven at the end of 2010, 2011 has required the adjustment of learning to walk through life without them. Some of that was logistics, such as the last trip to my parents’ house to take final mementos and say good-bye. My cousins had done “a yeoman’s job,” as my mother would say, sorting and cleaning for months so that, in the summer when I made the trip with my son, John, and my friend, Dale, the house was so empty and looked so different that much of the anticipated shock and sorrow was not there. Instead, there were some sweet moments and surprises. On the shelf of my girlhood bedroom closet, I found a box full of my mother’s journals. I was hoping I could find them, and there they were. I couldn’t believe I had stumbled upon them so easily. Then Dale noticed a pink Post-it stuck to the shelf. In my dad’s handwriting, it said, “For Carie.” Also on that shelf was the model of a railway station building my dad had made when he was a boy. I was touched that he knew I would value those things, and saved them for me.

For Carie

Before my mother died, before Dennis and my father died, I had one last significant conversation with each of them—the kind that satisfies your soul and makes the relationship feel blessed, complete, and finished. It was the same way with the house. Just before we left, two things happened. I was going through each room, saying, “Good-bye house,” starting with the honey pine family room, through the kitchen and into the expanded sun room my dad and mom had added on themselves. Mom used to sit out there a lot in her last years, and Daddy had decorated the area around her with photographs and little gifts my sister and I had given her.

On my last day in the house my parents designed and built, I walked into the sun room one last time. It was completely empty. Yet there, hanging from the ceiling near the French doors right where my mom sat day after day, were two gifts I’d given her. One was a mobile of humming birds and red flowers that I’d had one of my husband’s patients make for her. She loved hummingbirds. The other was a dark purple globe from our trip to Mt. St. Helens soon after the eruption. The maker had been a cattle rancher whose entire herd was killed by falling ash. Instead of being devastated, he scooped up the ash and began doing what he loved to do. His hobby was a glass blowing. After the volcano forced him out of the cattle business, he created globes from the ash. I had heard that, each year, he mixed different quantities together to get a distinctive look for that group of globes. When I gave it to my mother, I told her the story. She, too, had lost the future she had assumed would be her reality, but she could make something unique and distinctive from the ashes, and the meaning of that creative choice would grace others with its message of hope.

Looking out at the Sun Room

The other thing happened when I said good-bye to the Master Bathroom which my dad had modified so he could continue to care for Mom at home. He sawed through the wall next to the tub and turned what was, on the other side, an entryway closet, into the space for a fiberglas shower that he installed flush to the floor so Mom didn’t have to step over a lip to get in. I was admiring my dad’s loving, innovative modifications when I noticed something dark on the floor of the white shower. It looked like a tiny lizard.

Lizards were my pets when I lived in that place five decades ago. I caught them and fed them flies. Mom was allergic to fur and feathers, so lizards were the closest thing I had to pets, and I always think of them as a fond connection with that house that was set where wild things abounded. Mom never complained about my reptilian pets, but she always insisted that I let them go after a day or two. They weren’t meant to be captive, she said; they had to live outside where they could be free to grow.

Looking at the small, dark shape in the shower in the last moments before departure that final afternoon, I wasn’t sure what it was. It was awfully small to be a lizard. Maybe it was some string. Just then, Dale happened by. He said it looked like a lizard and wondered if it was alive. We both thought it wasn’t, but when he touched it, the little thing scurried away. A baby lizard—and still very much alive. Dale caught it. I knew what to do. I said, “Please take it outside and let it go.”Dale went out the front door, opened his hand under one of the shaggy, old Chinese junipers, and it disappeared into the shadows. The house had said good-bye to me, and now I could leave it forever.

I’ve heard that it takes at least a year to get past the raw part of grieving. Thinking back at how I was at this time last year, I can say that is very true. I’m certainly doing better. One big thing that’s helped is “Eternal River, Volume III.” In this third book of the eight-volume, six-generation memoir of my family’s life, I happened to be working on the time period that covers my father’s inventing microcurrent and the adventures we had making it known. Since my husband, Dennis, pioneered the work and helped teach the seminars, writing that book was like having all three of them with me. Memories were vivid and delightful. It was a golden time in our lives. I loved hearing their voices and seeing their faces during the year I’ve been bringing the book to near completion. It also put me back in touch with dear family friends. They all contributed their stories to the book, and their memories, some of which had been unknown to me, made me feel closer to my parents.

I also worked on a book called A Gift of Puppies, that is stories from puppy raisers and breeder caretakers of service dogs. I got to know each one of the storytellers over the year of interviews, emails, and edits. They showed me how healing it is to give your time and love for someone else’s benefit—and how much they receive in return.

Recently, my friend and favorite photographer, Nathan DeHart, drove me to San Rafael to see the puppies in the kennels of Guide Dogs for the Blind. We had been given permission to take photographs of their puppies, and they just happened to have Labs of each color and golden retrievers—the rainbow of puppies I had hoped to be able to put on the cover of the book.

I have to say that, having puppies crawl over you, attach themselves to the hem of your garment, and lick you enthusiastically with puppy breath in your face is, indeed, a great de-stressor. Long ago, the Lord told me He had made puppies and kittens and fuzzy duckies for hope, and that afternoon at GDB made me laugh with the abundance of life that was romping on tiny paws there. Interestingly, Sharon Kret, the keeper of the puppies, told me “Tomorrow they’ll be on the puppy truck.” TOMORROW! Wow! I felt blessed indeed that we were able to be there when they had the perfect combination of puppies for our cover.

New Book

Three other big projects went on this year. One is the album of Scripture songs that I recorded with some of my favorite musicians and some of my favorite young people. One of the youth teachers is my son Thomas, and his whole family sings on several of the songs. It was my heart’s desire that all of my family’s voices would be on this album, but logistics are difficult. John’s family lives in Oregon. I realized that it was very unlikely that he or his family would be able to participate. Even the young people we were recording in the Sacramento area presented logistical problems, but recording engineer and friend Dan Worley made it happen under all manner of adverse conditions (including cramming twenty-five young people into a tiny room in the summer with the air conditioning turned off). And, because my son John was able to stay at my house for a couple of days after returning from the last trip to my parents’ house, he was able to lay down a vocal track for me in his beautiful baritone voice.

This is also the first year I’ve had a personal website. Friends talked me into doing it, saying that it would save time because I could communicate with everyone at once instead of sending individual emails. I was surprised to find it was so healing. I was able to share the ways I was getting through those first torn months when I had no landmarks or anchors on this earth. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but writing helped me keep in contact and speak the things I was learning. Writing is the way I make order in my life. I was also able to post photographs and songs, stories of other people, and even recipes. To my surprise, people actually stopped by to see what I had to say. I can’t express how honored I feel when someone does that.

The other activity has been Solo Uno, the jewlery line that began quite suddenly in May. It has been the biggest surprise of the year for me. I have not shown anything creative in ten years. Who would have guessed that God would lead me in such a direction? I could understand if He wanted me to volunteer at a soup kitchen or knit shawls for widows, but He has led me deeper and deeper into Solo Uno. Still, at the gallery show opening, at the crafts fair, at the talk for the Presbyterian Women, there have been opportunities to minister hope for others who say they are encouraged to see that a mostly blind person can still make pretty things. Life is not over when there is loss. In my case, the increasing blindness was a catapult into doing what I’d been wanting to do for years—make jewelry. Perhaps, like the glass blower, God is in this way giving me beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for a heavy, weak, and failing spirit. Working with pretty beads and seeing people respond so enthusiastically to my creations is more encouraging to me that I can explain. And God is doing this for me through what seems so unessential for life. Then again, flowers are not as nutritious as vegetables, and yet they feed a different part of us—one that is perhaps just as essential for the fullness of life.

Pear Necklace on Red Hat

Speaking of nutrition, the last big change has only come about since October. God has His way of nudging me into the chute He chooses for me. Like the jewelry, it isn’t a path I could have anticipated. Because of health problems and some convincing research, I have changed my way of eating. It’s organic, plant-based, whole, and even sometimes raw. Is this the Sixties or what? And yet, I started immediately feeling better. I always thought vegetarians were odd, vegans were extremists, and raw food eaters were most likely to be found living together on communal farms tended by men in straw hats and women in shapeless, flowery dresses. It’s not like that, actually. In November I started a class with gourmet raw foods chef Christina, who has become a knowledgeable resource and a dear and treasured friend. My mom was adventuresome with her cooking and, being Chinese, thought of food as medicine. She would have loved the flavors, and enjoyed knowing that everything she put into her mouth was good for her as well.

My year has swept past, full of good memories and dear friends, surprises and headings. I have left the ancestral home and have energy to invest in other people. No longer do I worry about the next phone call with alarming news. For now, my life has some routine and no emergencies.

Three years ago at this time I was about to graduate from Guide Dogs for the Blind with Hedy. One year ago at this time I was in shock. This year at this time I have seen so much of the faithfulness of God and the help and loving care of friends and family. It is true that God never gives us more than we can bear, though it may not seem like it at the time. In Him, nothing is wasted—not one tear, not one whimper. Beauty for ashes—it’s true.

Daddy Rose


  1. Paige Ramsey-Palmer

    January 25, 2023 - 9:48 PM

    Dear Carolyn,
    Thank you for this retrospective of leaving your family home and things left that nourished your soul. I was especially nourished in reading this because my dear sister, Carolyn Cole, transitioned from this plane on Jan. 7, after a brief illness. Reading how you were able to return to your family home and say goodbye was encouraging – I will be going back to California late this spring for a memorial at my sweet sister’s home overlooking San Pablo Bay, near Wildcat Canyon, where we spent so many remarkable hours sharing our lives that primarily existed almost 2000 miles apart. It was a special time in a special place. We will be gathering in her back yard for her memorial, to remember and celebrate the creative, generous, loving, compassionate, insightful, Earth-mother being that was my sister. Her two daughters plan to welcome those who knew her to come there and tell stories and celebrate her amazing life that touched so many people.
    Thank you for sharing this with all of us. Blessings to you and your family in 2023.

  2. kathie fong yoneda

    January 3, 2012 - 8:58 AM

    So loved your New Years message on your blog, Carolyn. Saying good bye to your home as a metaphor for starting a new chapter in your life is profound & reminds us that life goes on…and reading about all of your accomplishments in the last year also reminds all of us that not only does life go on, but it’s up to us to make the most of our life — fulfilling our destiny helps all of us to make the most of our life & our relationships with others. I am so happy to have you & Hedy as friends! xoxo kathie

  3. Alice Trego

    January 2, 2012 - 7:14 PM

    To my dear friend, Carolyn, who writes so eloquently the words I always need to hear. I’m glad your writing here has helped your healing — I know that your writing has helped me, too.

    May 2012 blossom more for you…

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      January 2, 2012 - 7:43 PM

      Dear, dear Alice! It touches me that my words have helped you as you continue to find your way in your own New Normal. Everyone says time would heal, and as we go from day to day, we see the truth of what we’ve lived through. We start to see good that we missed, or could not have understood. After all the weeping is a bright, clean space where we see God’s love clearly, and understand the wisdom of His choices of seasons and times. Blessings upon you, dear one! –Carolyn

  4. Marie Reynolds

    January 1, 2012 - 9:02 AM

    Here is to a healthy and prosperous 2012 for you and yours Carolyn. Thank you for recalling all the memories. I cried when I saw the photo of the empty living room and sun porch, remembering the happy meals we shared with your family when we were young. Thanks for writing and keep on truckin! Love you.

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      January 2, 2012 - 7:47 PM

      Marie, I remember all ten of you crowded around a heavily laden table full of my mom’s good food. What fun we had in each other’s houses! Your words gave me instant memories. I can hear the talk and laughter. Thank you for that gift–the kind only friends for many decades can give. Blessings upon you, too, in this new year. Love, Carolyn

  5. Mary E. Trimble

    December 31, 2011 - 4:53 PM

    Thank you, Carolyn, for this lovely tribute to life. I loved the pictures and the thoughts behind them. I’m so glad this year you feel whole and blessed. We are blessed to have you in our lives.

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      January 2, 2012 - 7:55 PM

      So good to be able to share the passages of life with my friends and family! I have felt so supported with prayers and notes from you and others of Women Writing the West. There’s nothing like having a sisterhood of writers who love history. The very nature of that affinity makes for deep appreciation of the individual voice and the significance of each one’s place in time. You have always come alongside to lift me up. Thank you for doing so again. Love, Carolyn

  6. Betty Helf

    December 31, 2011 - 3:13 PM

    Carolyn, You are truly an inspiration to all those who are privileged to know and love you. I wish nothing but good things for you as you travel through 2012 and beyond.

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      January 2, 2012 - 7:58 PM

      It’s Jesus, Betty, and the love and help of family and friends like you! Love, C and H

  7. Jean Patane

    December 31, 2011 - 12:47 PM

    You bring sunshine into our lives. Thank you for sharing. May the Lord bring you many blessings in the new year.

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      January 2, 2012 - 8:03 PM

      One of the blessings of this new year is hearing from you, Jean. Who would have guessed that we would still be in touch after an “accidental” meeting in an ordinary place (was it Safeway?)? How delightful to know that you want to follow along with my ordinary life! Hope to see you again some day soon–maybe when Hedy and I do the book signing for “A Gift of Puppies” very soon! I would love to give you a hug! –Carolyn and Hedy

  8. Cynthia Becker

    December 31, 2011 - 11:42 AM

    Thank you for sharing those special last moments in your parents’ house. It is truly the little things we keep in our hearts.

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      January 2, 2012 - 8:10 PM

      Cynthia, you have noticed what was, to me, the most important part of my post. It makes me think you have also gone through this passage of life. Another friend of mine wrote this to me. She said I could share it with you. –Carolyn

      “It is true that God does heal us in our grieving with whatever means the most to us, and gives us hope that days will come when the pain mellows to an ache. The ache then mellows into memories that bring peace, joy and wonder. The love, however, never ceases, as you know.” –Darda Burkhart

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