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A moment of faith

January 29, 2012

For nearly an hour I looped around the rolling hills of my neighborhood, quietly praying for friends who are dealing with medical illnesses. It was a beautiful crisp winter Sunday morning. Praying and walking is where my faith meets meditation in exercise. I am by myself, thinking through all life’s worries and giving thanks for everything I have to appreciate.

I ask God for strength, long before I turn at the creek and climbed the uphills for a mile.

Today I was praying for four specific people. I asked God to touch them with strength, spirit and love, to surround them with good people, and to give me the wisdom to be the kind of friend who shows up.

I thought about my one friend in her battle with breast cancer. She refuses to let it define her: She’s so smart. She even went on two blind dates before starting chemotherapy. I saw her recently after she had gone for chemotherapy and then to hot yoga. You go, girl! Kickbox that cancer right back into the 1800’s.

Along my route, I started to think about the LIVESTRONG Challenge this year in Philadelphia and how much I was looking forward to managing the Survivor Rose line. (For those who don’t know, the Lance Armstrong Foundation hands a single long-stemmed yellow rose to every cancer survivor that crosses the finish line at it’s fundraising events. It doesn’t matter whether you walk, stroll, ride, race, run or waddle. If you are there, this is your gold-metal moment. This is your moment to stand at the finish line and say,” I celebrate life!”) I thought about all the people I have met in the last two years, how seeing them again is a sort of life reunion. I look forward to it all year.

Those long-stemmed yellow roses are a burst of sunshine. To be surrounded by a thousand yellow roses all weekend at a sporting event really is a good gig. I was thinking about it as I turned a corner and decided to do one loop around the neighborhood again.

The act of handing a cancer survivor their rose is to become a part of their story. You are a small by significant part of their legacy. To hand them a rose is like putting the bow on the gift of life. It is such an honor for me, a deep heartfelt honor.

The bow on the gift of life.

I rounded the top of  Starboard Way and saw it lying there in the road. A single long-stemmed red rose in a foil wrapper, just like the yellow ones I hand out at LIVESTRONG every August.  I didn’t see it when I was on that road just 10 minutes earlier. I’d like to think it was sent to me, like a shinny dime. I looked up and said, “Thank you.”


From a distance

November 27, 2011

(Editorial note – This is a letter to my Dad, who passed away 16 years ago. Anyone who has ever had a severed relationship with a family member may appreciate this. If he were here today this is what I’d like to say. I was supposed to post this on Thanksgiving, his birthday, but my mother woke up that morning short of breath. A day in the emergency room, worrying about her heart, is not a great day.)

Dear Dad,

I was born into a family that loved me. At nine months of age I stood up for the first time and learned to walk holding onto the knees of elders and siblings sitting on the living room couch. I haven’t sat still since.

You loved life. That’s why I am here. You wanted a large family and ignored the naysayers. Nine children gave you 21 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. They are all amazing individuals! Every one of them melts me. I’d like to believe that we have all become a positive influence on society.  Because of you, my husband has a wife and three children get to be.

Every family has its troubles. By volume, we had plenty. I will never know your stress, nor the pressures you felt to succeed. Unfortunately, only death gave us real closure.

I just won’t dwell, but neither will I let history repeat itself. That’s a cloudy day that never clears. Instead, I control my legacy, making those daily decisions that can either build or demolish the heart of a family. I am a builder.

Today – your birthday and our Thanksgiving – I’d like to send a little thank you to heaven.  (Maybe this will influence someone else to reconnect with a loved one, while they still have time to love with a warm heart.)

I love this life. Each day I begin by noting my blessings and thinking of others. Through appreciation that I draw strength. Contentment is not the absence of problems, but rather the presence of faith. The parts of you that I chose to remember I still hold dear.

You called me “Mary the Good.”  I don’t know how I got that nickname when I was always toddling out of the yard and out of sight, causing regular search-and-rescue missions in the neighborhood.

You gave me Mom. She truly is my best friend, my heart and my soul. She still teaches me. Every second of every minute of every day I have with her I give thanks. God made sure she lived a long life. It is our gift.

She did a great job of raising all of us. Mom made sure there was faith in our life, so in times of trouble we had each other and something to hold on to. We really are close, despite our periodic arguments. There’s more kissing that hissing.

I’m like you in many of ways. I have your thick head of hair and your giant belly laugh, the one that can silence a crowded restaurant as everyone turns to see what is so funny. I don’t drink Manhattan’s with two olives, however. Once you took Ken, Joe and I out for pizza and asked the waitress to put three olives in your drink so we could each have one. She arrived with three olives in all our drinks.  I can still hear you laughing.

You helped me to stretch my curiosity and learn to appreciate the written word. My living room has more books than time. You encouraged my love of reading, even when it caused library fines. You let me sit between you and Mom after dinner while reading Andy Rooney columns and editorials aloud.

I liked listening to you and Mom discuss current events. One time, when you were discussing that George Washington’s birthday was coming up, I stood up on the high chair and said, “Oh, goody. When’s the party?” I was four. Birthdays meant homemade pizza and cake to me. That’s another party I wanted to go to.

While I might not have agreed with your correspondence over the years, I appreciated how well written they were and your signature with a figure eight squiggle.

I would love to talk with you about what I am doing now. You are right: Every one has a story to tell.  I wish I could talk to you about your love of music and your work as a war correspondent in World War II.

Thank you for the letters you wrote me in college, describing your work as a police beat reporter in New York City in the 1940‘s. It’s full of sage advice that still applies today. On a shelf in my office sits your old Underwood typewriter, the one you used to write a series of stories about drunken driving that lead New York to enact its first drunk driving laws. You should have won a Pulitzer prize. The scrapbook still exists.

I still smile when I think about how much you loved an unopened can of peanuts, kid art, nature and the trip we took to Colorado Springs. One time, while we were visiting Royal Gorge, you told me that if a boy called me gorgeous he was really saying that I was “one hell of a hole in a rock.” Come on, that’s still funny!

When I hold a prayer book I wander back to the time when, as a little girl, I watched the way you and Mom clutched bibles in your hands at church. My memory is a child’s-eye view.

Sometimes I am sure you are the intuition over my shoulder as I write.  I like you there.

Happy Birthday Dad.  Peace.



To all U.S. veterans, Thank you

November 11, 2011

This sign is part of the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.

To U.S. veterans and the men and woman currently serving our country home and abroad:

Thank you from the bottom of my beating American heart.

Over the years I have done plenty of civic and charitable deeds, starting with Girl Scouts, but I have never served our country in the military.

I will never know what it is like to live in the desert for a month with sand infused into every pore of my body. My head has never been shaved. I won’t carry a 100-pound backpack. I don’t expect someone will ever purposefully shoot at me in the dark. Neither will I go months at a time without one single letter from home. I haven’t eaten Spam in 40 years. Neither will I know what it’s like to fly missions in the Air Force when I launch into bursts of energy over a target and then battle the adrenaline rush of dodging enemy flak for hours afterward. The only foxhole I ever saw was in the woods.

I have feared for my life, but it is not the same.

I’ve never stepped off a Navy ship or a cargo plane and kissed the ground I walk on.  Maybe I should.  Maybe I should attend a few more Welcome Home celebrations. Maybe then I will understand a little more when a veteran says, “You just won’t understand what it was like. You weren’t there.”

I think of you when I see the American flag slowly shifting in the breeze.

I cry when I hear Taps, thinking of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

You remind me of your work when I vote, when I travel freely, when I learn, and every moment that I feel safe.

This Veterans Day is your Thank You Day and I will never take it for granted.

I remember when my brother Brian came home from serving in the Army in 1974.  He was among the last group drafted for Vietnam and, luckily for me, he never shipped out. He sat in an upright chair in our dining room, shoulders square, wearing his green Army fatigues and calmly and respectfully talked to my mother and his younger siblings about what serving the military was like. He seemed so calm to me. So serious. It was the first time I remember someone acting mature. It impressed me that in getting back to civilian life he was suddenly taking on new responsibilities around the house.  My big brother. I was about 10 years old.

When my nephew returned from Iraq it I cut work with my boss’ permission, borrowed a sign from the New Jersey Builders Association that said “God Bless America. Our Home Sweet Home” to hang across his street and lined the neighborhood with American flags.

Ben’s smile looked like a Christmas tree when he pulled up to the curb with his friend Andrew from Basic Training and saw the sign.  I felt lucky to see him return, thankful to the core. One of the most prideful moments I have ever had as an aunt happened that day.  I have rolls of film to document it.

My nephew asked me to take a picture of his boots, because he walked into Iraq in them and walked out of Iraq in them. I listened in awe as he and Andrew rolled around in the grassy front lawn and talked about all the things they appreciate about coming home.

That day I learned something: Having a safe and healthy place to live means much more when you have fought and sacrificed everything to protect it.

God bless you. God bless America.


Mary V Danielsen


LIVESTRONG: Every rose tells a story

August 26, 2011

Flowers provided by

Here are 150 beautiful long-stemmed yellow roses.

They are stunning and brilliant and light up a room instantly.

People smile when they see them.

Think of each of these roses as someone with cancer: a survivor with feeling-good days, up-and-down days, bad or worried days and just-normal days. They may be someone battling cancer right now, someone in recent recovery or a long-time survivor.

Now think of each of these roses as someone you know: maybe a loved one, a neighbor, classmate, community member, coworker, social media connection, a person you just happened to meet or a dear close friend. It doesn’t take long to fill a bucket with yellow roses representing cancer survivors.

Imagine how powerful it must be to see cancer survivors and thousands of their cheerleaders (also known as care givers and friends) challenge themselves physically and mentally to participate in a LIVESTRONG Challenge. Stand at the starting line and you will become overwhelmed by the sea of bicycle helmets and running shoes.

Each cancer survivor that crosses the finish line of a LIVESTRONG Challenge, whether walking, running, strolling or riding a bike, is handed a long-stemmed yellow rose. It is a symbolic monument to every survivor, because it represents their story: the future they enjoy today.

The yellow rose is pure joy for every cancer survivor crossing the line.

Every participant has a cancer connection.

Every cancer survivor’s story is traumatic. That’s what makes their journey so powerful.  They didn’t ask for this. Cancer just sneaked up on them like a thief in their home, taking what it wants and leaving everything in shambles. To survive, they must defend themselves.  Fight.

You can’t be untouched when you see a small child walk across the finish line of a LIVESTRONG Challenge, wearing a sign that says, “I am a Survivor.”  They are our babies and our future. They deserve a healthy life.

Not to be missed are the two fist-raised and drenched buddies, who crossed the finish line after riding 75 miles in the wind and rain on a bicycle, only to break down in tears at how that trip represented their journey against cancer.  They both survived the ultimate physical challenge and they did it together.

LIVESTRONG Challenge participants know their journey would not have been possible today were it not for the money that was donated years ago for research and community-based programs.  That investment allowed new treatments and programs to be developed that benefit them. They now want a future without cancer for themselves and for you.

They are already empowered in their mission to get more information, to make their own choices in their treatments, to implement positive lifestyle choices in their households, and, ultimately, to give back.

My helper for the day

People often ask me where does the money go that is donated to LIVESTRONG.  Here are some quick notes.

  • In 2010 LIVESTRONG funded 80 new community programs across the country, which will ultimately serve more than 30,000 individuals affected by cancer. That is in addition to the programs that LIVESTRONG funded in the previous 13 years.
  • Through June of this year LIVESTRONG served 240,390 with its LIVESTRONG at School program, LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program and Community Impact Projects. (This is one of my favorites, since my local Y is exactly 3.1 miles from home.)
  • Some 142,974 families were serviced this year through its Navigation Services Team, saving them $1,637,900.
  • Through May, LIVESTRONG trained 30,674 health professionals, thanks to its partners at ASCO,, and NOEP.

So when you see someone riding by wearing a LIVESTRONG cycling jersey, or the waiter in a restaurant is sporting a yellow wristband, or you see a child with no hair, the result of cancer treatments or you hear of a community-wide rally for a local family, think about the bucket full of yellow roses and the cancer survivors you know.  They are here today, because of the work that was done by others yesterday. I assure you that they don’t want cancer to define their life: their survivorship does.

Every yellow rose tells a story.  Every story has a lesson. Through their participation in the LIVESTRONG Challenge that lesson is their shared legacy, one that will blossom and flourish like a magnificent yellow rose.

Note: With over 5000 runners and riders and 600 volunteers, this year’s Philadelphia LIVESTRONG Challenge accumulated $2.6 million in contributions to go towards the fight against cancer.

I had a pleasure of managing the Survivor Rose Line at this year’s LIVESTRONG Challenge in Philadelphia with an awesome team of volunteers.  My favorite part was handing roses to my friends, all 900 of them, including the first one across the line, the 7-time Tour de France winner, and the last one, who could not be stopped by cancer or a weekend of thunderous rain and lightning.

Also, much thanks to for providing the LIVESTRONG Philadelphia with these beautiful roses again.  They remain a vision of hope for everyone.

Laurens Flannagan (left) - my amazing friend who helped me all weekend

A moment to be still

July 13, 2011

In the stark summer sunrise sometimes you just have to stop and notice the bee in the flower. In that second – surrounded by all that beauty – it takes a moment to be still.

Woolwich Township, N.J.; Photo by Mary V. Danielsen

Family Heirloom Documentation: A little girl’s afternoon on a silver platter

July 8, 2011

Family Heirlooms can play a big role in recording personal legacy stories. Here, one woman describes riding two trolley cars to shop on the Grand Concourse in New York at the beginning of the Great Depression

Ten fragile crooked hands reached to the back of the third shelf and pulled a wrapped package out of the closet, years of dust accumulating on family sentimentals came trailing behind.

“Unwrap it, dear. I want to show you something. Hold it carefully.”

Her smile went way back. You could see it in the way her hands gingerly touched the edge of this 15-inch dish, circling it several times.  It had been wrapped in a cloth bag made from old garments decades earlier.  An elegant green cut crystal platter, it is edged in sterling silver with scrolls of vines intertwined with cosmos and daffodils (her  favorite).  It is in remarkable shape considering its age.  No dents or scratches.  The cut of the crystal gives the center of the platter a star burst effect, which is beautiful in natural light.

“This was such a fun afternoon, “she said. Her voice picked up steam as she began to tell the story. “I can still remember the smell of the trolley car wires overhead. They made a distinctive burning smell that I could still smell on my clothing hours later. Oh, it made me sick. The trolley cars would rock back and forth all the way downtown. Mixed with the smell from the overhead wires, I almost vomited the entire way there. I was green.

“Both my grandmothers – young widows at the time – took me to the Grand Concourse in New York to go shopping for the day.  We took two trolley cars to get there. It was an outing for them and for me, too. It was a big exciting “to do” in those days.  It also gave my mother a break while she was taking care of my little brother.”

The Grand Concourse, which was originally known as the Grand Boulevard and Concourse when it officially opened in 1909, was the first major thoroughfare in the Bronx in New York City. Built during the height of the City Beautiful movement, it was modeled on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but is considerably larger, stretching four miles in length, measuring 180 feet across, and separated into three roadways by tree-lined dividers. Some minor streets do not cross the Concourse.

The original road stretched from the Bronx Borough Hall at 161st Street north to VanCortlandt Park.  By the time she was five years old, Yankee Stadium opened down the hill from the Concourse Plaza Hotel at 161st Street and Lowe’s Paradise Theater – one of the largest movie theaters in New York City at the time – was in the planning stages.

A simple crystal platter with a personal history

“This was right at the start of the Great Depression. My grandmothers would love to take me downtown to shop and talk,” she said.  “There would be push carts all along the streets where people would sell their possessions and other goods.  I can still see my grandmothers, both dressed in all black, because they were mourning, always mourning, with their little pocketbooks going up to these pushcarts.  There was a lot of negotiating going on. Sometimes they would struggle with the language. I think they paid 50 cents for this platter and, still, they thought it was too much money.

“We had this at home for years. My parents used it in the dining room.”

She circled the tray’s edge again several times with her fingers, as if she could still feel the hands of her Nonna and Nanna holding their victorious shopping treasure. Her eyes and her smile were way off in the distance while she was looking straight at me.

The platter’s real value is in its legacy: A little girl holding the hands of both grandmothers while shopping flea market style at the start of the Great Depression in New York City. The most pleasant of memories – a moment of history, our personal history – can be relived through the simplest story of family heirlooms.


Here are some more cool facts about the Grand Concourse in New York City, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ways blogging boosts legacy writing

July 6, 2011

It never ceases to amaze me when I learn something new through my blog. I am always surprised when the words I write elicits a response from a total stranger. In researching family background for myself and others, there have been numerous occasions when previously unknown information was sent to me by someone else. I have met people that I now communicate with regularly. You can’t always tell that from the amount of blog comments.  This would not have happened if I had not posted a story on my blog and tagged it appropriately.

For anyone interested in legacy writing, particularly for projects that involve a lot of research, here are the top 10 reasons why blogging can enhance your work.

  1. You get to write about something that interests you.
  1. It gets your topic out into the public.  You’ll talk about it beyond your family circle.
  1. It creates opportunities to network on a given topic without having to search for forums and chat rooms
  1. This gives you an outlet to share your gathered knowledge and search for more information.
  1. By networking with other bloggers and websites, you’ll meet like-mined people from across the globe.
  1. It can create interesting dialogue with others. You will be surprised by what you learn.
  1. It establishes you as a source of information on a given topic.
  1. You can assist others.
  1. It’s fun. It’s a good cheap hobby that takes up a lot more time than money.
  1. Most importantly, it lengthens the lifetime of your legacy writing project. Whether you are writing about your great grandparent’s immigration to the United States, a military history, your lifelong friendships with a motorcycle club, why you collect stamps or life lessons you want to leave for your children’s children, the passion in your legacy writing lives on through blogging conversations.