Friday, July 26, 2019

It’s Complicated: A Sentimental Journey

Como Park Zoo

I have just returned from a 12-day vacation. I knew ahead of time that it would be complicated; it involved some intricate travel arrangements, more than a dozen other people and a highly sentimental journey to the place I’d spent much of my childhood.

We landed at Wold-Chamberlain Field, more commonly known as the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.  As a child, it was not uncommon for my family to return from church, the wonderful scent of a roast in the oven heralding the imminent arrival of our big Sunday meal -- which we knew would be followed by a ride to the airport to watch the planes land and take off. Air travel was still new and fascinating back then. Now only the name, Wold-Chamberlain, remains familiar though those long-ago memories remain sharp and dear.

Securing a rental car, we headed to Como Park Zoo, another childhood haunt only blocks from the brick and stucco house that I had called home for so many years. I audibly gasped as we passed familiar streets:  Lexington, Larpentuer, Snelling, Hamline. I had often traveled these streets but now only the names were familiar -- the other landmarks long gone or changed beyond recognition. The zoo itself is now an animal sanctuary, educational center and amusement park. Blessedly gone were the tiny cramped cages that defined zoos of the 1940s and ‘50s where a solitary bear would circle in bored captivity or the monkeys would screech and hurl food or feces in frustration.

Not everything about “the good old days” was good though; I was too young and ignorant to see the cruelty that existed in this place that had been my backyard and playground. In this particular case, I was thankful that only the name was familiar. And, yes, I have recollections of a happy childhood walking daily and blissfully to Como Park unaccompanied, it was a time when kids were safe to roam unencumbered and unclouded by adult concerns.

Now, clouded with the adult concern about whether or not I’d be able to walk the long distances on a hot day that a thorough visit would require, I sought refuge on a bench in a cool, breezy corridor between the amusement park and the zoo – and I was not alone. 

As I “people-watched,” I saw blonde pigtails on little girls that must have been the Nordic grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my peers. Surely they carried names like Anderson or Erickson, Peterson or Pederson, Lindquist or Sandquist. But I saw something else too.  I saw families of every color and ethnicity. 

A tall black man wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the printed message “I’ve had enough adulting for one day.” A few minutes later, a slight, grandfatherly man who appeared to be of Asian descent ambled by clad in the identical T-shirt -- how universal a sentiment that phrase is some days! Another memorable passerby was a tiny boy with caramel-colored skin whose shirt declared the ultimatum: “Only Good Vibes Today.” I could only guess at the complicated, meandering paths that brought this mix of color to what I remembered as such a historically white state. 

While this made it markedly different than it was when my memories were first formed some 70 years ago, what hadn’t changed at all was the fact there were families enjoying a day outside – and together -- trying to create memories that would sustain them over the ensuing decades – just as mine had sustained me on this sentimental journey. If I knew where to buy one, I would have purchased a T-shirt to match the one worn by the little boy with the caramel-colored skin!

Sitting on that bench, seven decades into my journey that brought me back to where I grew up, my head began to spin. There would be many more observations and complications to be sure -- I was only 12 hours into my vacation after all -- but already I found it hard to believe that joy and sadness could simultaneously occupy the same space in my heart.

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A Little Boy and a Hummingbird
Fourteen Stories
On Readin' and Writin'

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Little Boy and a Hummingbird

A hummingbird preserved as decoration from the New York Historical Society's recent exhibition "Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife." Credit: Adam Tschorn

It is a clear cool September day. It is the kind of day that heralds the iconic Vermont foliage season.  It is bookended by days of late summer heat and humidity and a forecast of Indian summer heat to come.

It is the kind of day that urges fall housecleaning, stacking wood, putting the garden to bed.  It has been said that September is second only to the dawn of a new year in January as a “re-set” month. And that is certainly true for me.  Always a casual housekeeper, I am armed with broom and vacuum cleaner, trash bags and disinfectant cleaners.  I am about to tackle the long-neglected “shed way” that is the only easily accessible entrance to my house, a double-doored 4x4 space that also houses my garden tools, yard toys, a few decorative plants and the detritus of living in the country.  And its two little windows and their sills – one on each side -- are the graveyard of ladybugs, a few furry bumblebees, a curled-up spider and, it turns out, the  carcass of an ill-fated hummingbird.

My breath caught in a moment of sadness at this undeserved fate; caught between doors and unable to escape this tiny gem perished with its tiny, pointed,  thorn-like beak and iridescent green feathers perfectly intact.  Somehow I could not leave it alone there.  Nor could I throw it away.  I envisioned another use for it.  So I placed it in a tiny white Lord & Taylor jewelry box, carefully wrapped in clean white tissue paper which I then moved to the temporary funeral home of my deep, black leather purse. 

Who would give a last bit of love to this tiniest of nature’s marvels?

Most adults who live in the country, familiar with ebb and flow of life and death as they are, would certainly not be impressed -- or even very curious. 

But great-grandson, Carter, six years old and already very familiar with the toys and curiosities of my shed way would probably like this … Maybe.

When I saw him at our family’s country store shortly thereafter, I called him over to me, opened my purse and pulled out the tiny box. His big blue eyes got even bigger and rounder as I carefully unwrapped the tiny mummy with its luminous colors.  His first reaction was sadness at this wee death.  Then he looked carefully at the long beak and layers of feathers and took off across the ancient floor boards of the store to find someone with whom to share his discovery.  He was as excited about this treasure as the original recipient of the piece of jewelry in the Lord & Taylor box must have been.  It was his gem.

After exhausting the supply of customers and employees at the store, he cradled the bird gently in his arms and announced his intention to take it to school to share some more.  Knowing the school, I was sure this would be accepted and, perhaps, serve as the starting point for an examination of the brief and stunning life of a hummingbird.

I was happy that he liked this little not-from-Walmart gift. I was glad that he could be sad but still see the beauty even in death.  Maybe that is an old person’s wish.  

Maybe it is life in miniature.

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Fourteen Stories


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Fourteen Stories

It was late afternoon on a glorious Monday in the middle of June. The weekend past exploded with celebrations as it is the season for graduations and weddings. Our little community also hosted hundreds that came to celebrate the life of a beloved coach.  In the blink of an eye the little kids that could barely see over the edge of the counter at the Wayside a moment ago are diving pell-mell into deeper pools; college, jobs, travel, internships. Passages, so many passages.

Now I was wending my way to the northern part of the state.  As I drove through the kind of scenery that Vermont cherishes on the kind of day that we wait longingly for throughout the winter months, I was in a pensive mood. I thought of change.  Who do we reach out to as we navigate these passages? Whose hand do we hold? Who will hold ours?

I was about to find some answers.

The reason for my trip was to attend the final exam of a public-speaking English class.  My grandson is one of the 14 young people whose assignment is to give an oral “Tribute Speech” -- to talk about someone who has influenced you, someone you want to honor or thank. My grandson had chosen to speak about his grandfather and spending time with him at our Sandgate homestead. I would have not missed it for the world. I had expected, in my quick-to-tear ways, to need the tissues tucked discretely in my sleeve.

What I had not expected was that while they spoke of their heroes -- the kind of heroes that do not exist in movies or video games or wear capes -- that these 14 would become my heroes.

Gangly cowlick-crowned boys with their shirts untucked mixed in with brawny skateboarders (yes, one brought his skateboard class) and more formally dressed young men. Young women in fancy dresses accessorized with stiletto heels sat beside plain dark frocks, cardigan sweaters and breezy short dresses showing off dancers’ calves.  There was no uniformity here.

One by one, they stepped up to the podium and began to tell their amazing stories. What courage did it take for these teenagers to talk with humor and conviction, with pathos and love about their honorees?

They spoke of renewed Christian faith fostered by a clergyman who remembered what it was like to be young and to keep the Faith.  They spoke of cultural acceptance, mixed-race families and step-families, sibling rivalries, crazy aunts, treasured grandparents and teachers who did not give up on them. They almost universally spoke of the work ethic and commitment that their mentors had exhibited. They revealed a host of memories and sacred moments. 

And one nervous young man spoke eloquently of death.  He made us fall in love with his quirky mentor. Then he paused, tore off his suit coat and shirt to expose an ALS T-shirt. His hero had died young but his influence lived on.

The teacher could easily have assigned a public-speaking assignment on a trip to the zoo or on how weather reports are generated.  The fundamental principles of speaking in public are the same no matter the topic. But she did not.  She had asked a simple question: “Who do you honor or remember?” And she got some very profound answers. Thank you.

Fourteen stories …
Their hands have been held.
They will hold the hand of others.
Heroes all.

“We’re all just walking each other home” -- Ram Dass

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On Readin’ and Writin’

“They” say that if you want to be a writer you must be a reader.

Well … I guess I am that. A reader, I mean. At least when judged on the basis of frequency – the writing comes sparsely and sporadically.  I read about a book a week, sometimes more.  I am indiscriminate in my reading only having a penchant for fiction -- especially the fictional likelihood of historical or real events. I am the worst when it comes to knowing authors -- to my shame and their chagrin. I pick books from the canvas pop-up tent at the library book sale and from the musty shelves at Goodwill. I actually DO judge books by their covers; I pick them because of the way they look, the way their titles sound rolling off my tongue and even, sometimes, simply because of how a book feels in my hand.

I panic -- like someone out of “Hoarders” on TV -- when I have less than a dozen tomes awaiting, like patient pets, by my bedside. If, on a trip to the doctor’ office, I’ve forgotten to bring a book with me, I’ll read every last magazine in the waiting room. I have even resorted to reading candy bar wrappers and cast-off drugstore flyers when no other words are available to lay my eyes upon. I love words. But, more than that, I love the images they create in my mind. A candy bar wrapper, for example, can instantly conjure up the mental image of a laboratory where chemicals combine with cocoa, white-coated lab technicians smell, taste and research variations on a product in an effort to hit on the perfect mouth feel for the latest Hershey company offering.

But these wrapper-conjured images, as important as they are, pale by comparison to the places I travel and the people I become through the skill of someone’s prose. An olive orchard in Italy becomes my own, a train ride in China becomes my trip. I become the Queen of England one moment and a prairie wife the next. Time travel and shape-shifting are not only possible, they are my diet; consumed with relish and motivated by an unappeasable appetite. I am the tattooed lady on Coney Island. I am the super sleuth navigating the back alleys of Marrakech.  I am a lover in Paris and a beloved in Alabama. I am a murderess in Iceland and a condor feathering its wings to catch the thermals over the majesty of the Grand Canyon. I dip and soar and weep in the clouds of my down comforter, pillowed by the magical words of an author’s skill at arranging words into stories that transport me, inform and educate me, entertain and enlighten me.

Ah … that enlightenment element … How I wish I could tell you of the wisdom contained in in the humblest of bound pages! It is a treasure hunt to find these nuggets but the search is often rewarded. Sometimes a wise author urges me to embrace humor (I have been known to giggle like a school girl in my solitary reading) and to look to the absurd to cushion the trials of everyday life. Sometimes an author will take me on a much-needed vacation to a place that refreshes my soul. Sometimes the philosophy of the author comes through with startling gut-punching clarity and lets me own it. 

“What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.”  (from “Animal Dreams” by Barbara Kingsolver)

You see?

I am envious of the skill, in awe of the research, intrigued by the plot twists and the lives and minds behind them. I love these authors’ willingness to share. If the seed of the Great American Novel has not taken root in the soil of my writing, I can at least write about reading.

“Sometimes I’m asked what my advice would be for emerging writers, and it is always simply, to read.” (author Hannah Kent)

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” (the oh-so-wise Dr. Seuss)

Read I will continue to do with much frequency. And write too – even if sparsely and sporadically.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Forget Friday the 13th ...

I am not superstitious.  I Am NOT superstitious.  However, I do not walk under ladders, a faint shiver of shame creeps up my spine as I am aware of a black cat crossing my path, and, if I enter an appointment on my calendar for Friday the 13th of any month, I wonder if the appointment will have dire consequences.

2017 has not started out well.  As one son put it: “We are only a week into the year and it feels like we are a year into the week.”  It has been plagued with enormous distress in our little quaint Vermont community as the first homicide -- yet unsolved --  burst our bubble of safety.  Couple that with medical concerns in the family, alternate subzero temps and rain creating icy falls and dented fenders.  One can only hope that like the month of March that is known to come in like a lion and leave like a lamb, this year of our Lord 2017 will leave in a more gentle and benevolent manner than it arrived.

With this background, I was, on Thursday the 12th, terribly aware -- shamefully aware in my non-superstitious nature -- that the next day would be a Friday the 13th.  How then did it happen that, while eating my favorite morning treat, crusty sesame semolina toast with a smear of butter and a dollop of organic blueberry jam, I lost a tooth.  Yes, it was lost … gone … not to be found … swallowed with the crunchy crust. Fake tooth that it was, there was no pain except to my vanity … how could I go out in public without smiling?  And how could I smile with that front tooth missing?

The day progressed with the local school bus going off the road in icy conditions and a massive power outage that crashed all that computer-driven technology in our businesses.  With no way to scan prices or ring up sales, we reverted to the pen and paper method of trying to stay open and record sales; sometimes guessing at prices or relying on running back and forth to check shelf labels with head lamps and flashlights.  And, when the power did come back on, the computers did not.  And this Friday the 13th occurring on Thursday the 12th ground down to a blessed end with frayed nerves and fatigue.

But here is the lesson: My dentist’s office got me in in a matter of hours and replaced the lost tooth. Who knew that they had a drawer of “emergency teeth” and a crackerjack technician to restore my smile?

No one was hurt in the school bus incident and people in the tiny little town were more tolerant and understanding of the road crew and their hard work in difficult conditions than usual.

Customers were grateful we were open at all. Help at the store stayed on past their shifts and restored the technology with the help of our IT company so that, by closing, we were fully functioning again. People altered their schedules to adjust without a complaint or second thought.

Bad luck?  I think not.  It is not the day; it is the support we give each other in major or minor crises that dictates how any given date on the calendar goes. As 2017 begins to roll out its days, of that I am absolutely sure -- evenif my spine still tingles a bit when a black cat crosses my path.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Pearl Harbor Birthday Wish

December 7, 2016

Today is my birthday.

I tell you this not to elicit Facebook or other birthday greetings (as pleasant and appreciated as they are) but because this date also commemorates the 75th anniversary of a fateful day in our country’s history -- the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Each birthday, though there have been many happy ones, carries the ghost, the shadow, of what happened there as TV spots and newspaper blurbs recall December 7, 1941.

This devastating attack (2,500 killed, 1,000 wounded) occurred after the U.S. refused to continue trading iron and gasoline to Japan which sorely needed them to continue to execute its conflict with China. The magnitude of the death and destruction ... the surprise raid ... left the United States with little choice but to abandon its isolationist policy and join World War II already in progress.

My earliest memory, after being primed for a birthday celebration, was to see my mother crying. This was supposed to be a happy day. Clearly it was not. A big, wooden, domed radio with a blue star-spangled dial, once so magical, now spewed forth a series of staticky announcements and became an instrument of fright and tears. Other adults gathered around and a tiny birthday cake with three pink candles sat forgotten and forlorn on the round oak table.

I was too young to understand then and for several years to come. My brother and I played with sticks and stones and rope swings. We played tag and Red Rover, hide-and-seek ... toys were scarce. Only toward the end of the war when we went to Saturday-afternoon matinees and were a captive audience to the dramatic newsreels of tanks and bombs (no changing channels here) did I comprehend that the bits of tin foil we were saving from sticks of gum were for the "war effort" and what the magnitude of that effort was. Victory gardens sprouted again as they had in World War I. Blackout drills were held in homes and schools. Families coalesced as grandparents and older siblings took on parenting roles while mothers went to work and fathers were conscripted into military service.

Perhaps the thing I remember most is rationing. I was old enough to walk to the corner store with the thin leather wallet containing the tiny perforated stamps that I could exchange for the family's supply of sugar and coffee. I never saw my normally placid mother so angry as when my brother and I ruined a whole pound of rationed coffee by contaminating it with every dark colored spice we could find in the cupboard (cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg) in an ill-conceived April Fools’ Day joke. My mother's ire was no joke as she went without her morning coffee for two weeks -- her allotment had been spoiled and there was no getting more at any price.

If I had the ability to create a montage here, I would show you a split-screen documentary of the years from 1941 to 2016. One half would depict the country in all its progress (television, microwave ovens, the moon landing, and computers), conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, 9/11) and social movements (Civil Rights and school desegregation, hippies, woman's liberation). The other half would show the chapters of my personal life: education, military service (where I met my husband), marriage, children, moving to Vermont to follow a dream, advancing to grandparenthood and the joy of great-grandparenting.

Oddly enough, both halves merge at about the same place. The two split-screens would become one where people from all walks of life started furiously and furtively poking their fingers and drumming their thumbs on the surface of tiny devices that contained all the knowledge of the world. The Encyclopedia Britannica, once a prized family possession, became nothing more than a doorstop, castoff relics that not even libraries would take in. Traditional modes of communication like writing letters and placing telephone calls have been outpaced by the expediency of e-mails and text messages. From The Donald's tweets to Hillary's e-mails, the media has climbed on board with the power of fast and brief communication and its fearsome capacity to affect us.

Relationships, personal and political, are made or broken in a few twitches of spastic digits and family members text each other across the dinner table. It is a curious phenomenon that has become as pervasive throughout the country as it has in our personal lives. We have indeed crossed the Rubicon (yes, I Googled it to make sure my understanding was correct) when it comes to technology. Good or bad, We the People are left to cope with the advances we have made.

We are now both literally and figuratively at arm’s-length from each other -- and especially from our troops. In World War II, the entire civilian population was involved through rationing, conserving, saving and guarding against the possibility of attack on U.S. soil. So why are we now so horribly disconnected now when we have the ability to be more connected than ever?

As my latest birthday cake – crammed with enough candles to burn a house down -- is being prepared, we as a country are trying desperately to figure out how best to honor and connect with the few remaining military men and women from that long-ago conflict. Would they even look at the memes passed through the social media channels – the ones that show a flag waving against the silhouette of a soldier in the background and a curly script in the foreground that says: "Thank You," (as well-intentioned and appreciated as they are)?

There has to be something more – and better -- than that.

Those aging veterans didn't have PTSD -- but there was an abundance of "shellshock." They endured and suffered to bring you and me the power to act as we think or say what we want without hindrance or restraint -- the very dictionary definition of freedom. We must, simply must, guard and respect those freedoms and use them with accountability for they came at a very steep price.

So here’s an idea: Why not use that clever little device just off the end of your fingertips to Google: "How to honor a veteran"? You’ll instantly be served up hundreds of ideas from providing a ride to buying a meal to arranging for the adoption of a companion dog. The one I like best? Listen to their stories; story-telling is a connectedness like no other. And if you listen to one vet's stories, in a sense, you have listened to them all ... the fear, the deprivation, camaraderie, courage and deep longing for peace.

And do it now -- don't wait for next Veteran’s Day to roll around or even next Memorial Day. And don't, for heaven's sake, wait 75 years! 

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Monday, June 27, 2016

I'm In Trouble ... Two-Dollar Bill's Worth

The Prelude ...

It is no secret that those of us that are intimately involved in running a cash register at a little country store watch for what, in my family, is called "funny money."  Now I am not talking about counterfeit bills though occasionally we do receive notices from the Vermont State Police that fake scrip is making the rounds in the area.

What I am talking about is the occasional bit of silver coin, 50-cent pieces, wheat pennies, a two-
dollar bill or anything out of the ordinary. Just last week, I found a buffalo nickel -- standing out like a bison in deer country -- as I counted the cash drawer. Turns out it’s worth about six cents without a readable date. I saved it anyway. I always think about the stories those odd bits of coin would tell if only they could speak of the hands that had spent them over the years.

The Story ...

Today I went to a flea market where the modest size and mellow weather dictated chit-chat with the motley crew of vendors. If you have time to really explore a flea market you will find it part history lesson (American Flyer sleds, coal shuttles, grinders for everything from meat to raisins), part creative entrepreneurship (crocks and wooden wheelbarrows planted with geraniums and necklaces woven and beaded with ladder yarn) and part Comedy Central (where else could you find a prosthetic leg complete with tube sock and worn sneaker?).

Always drawn to the closed glass cases that house shiny bits of old jewelry and miniature treasures, I stopped in the shade to gaze at an array of coins ... Mercury dimes, Indian-head pennies and the like. Telling the scruffy and bearded tender of this stall of the family penchant for saving oddities out of the cash register, he launched into the curious story of his old friend, Constantine.

Constantine, it seems, ran a little country store with his longtime girlfriend, Gracy.  He kept a little waste basket under the cash register where he placed every two-dollar bill that came his way. He promised Gracy that when the basket was full he would take her to the altar and marry her.

Now, Gracy had been his trusted employee for a long time and she was a patient woman but her patience was growing thin and the basket's contents grew ever so slowly. Over the years she had helped Constantine solve a lot of problems and now she set about solving what she saw as the problem of her lengthening spinsterhood.  She called everyone she knew and enlisted their help to call everyone they knew to come to the store and pay for their purchases with two-dollar bills. If the bank tellers in the small Vermont town knew the reason for the sudden requests for two dollar bills, they kept the secret.

In a surprisingly short time the little waste basket was full, almost overflowing. Constantine knew he was in trouble. For so many years his word had been his bond and it did not even occur to him to renege on this most solemn promise. Besides, he did love her and knew she would not be a troublesome wife.

And so, the wedding was held, paid for by two-dollar bills. Because they were modest people, the ceremony was modest, with wildflowers picked from the meadow and iced tea and cupcakes for the guests.  After so many years of hard work, Constantine and Gracy wanted to spend their money on a trip ... a real honeymoon.

So off they set for Cape Cod. They didn’t live so very far away but this seemed like a charmed place of mystical and mythical proportions. Dressed in his best new Carhartt pants and a new plaid shirt, over a thousand dollars’ worth of two-dollar bills secured by red rubber bands tucked here and there among their modest luggage, Constantine stepped up to the registration desk at the Holiday Inn. 

No, he did not want to pay with a credit card ... he had cash. So he began to unroll the bills and place them in front of the startled registrar.

It may have been company policy. It may have been the very strangeness of the transaction. Whatever it was, the authorities were called, and before Constantine and Gracy had their first honeymoon Heineken, the Massachusetts State Police were at their door wanting to know where he had obtained such a stash of cash. They were quite convinced that no one would have come by this legally.

It took a bit of explaining and a half-dozen phone calls to corroborate their story, but suspicion was eventually cleared and the newlyweds enjoyed their honeymoon -- tipping lavishly with two dollar bills -- and laughing at the new credit card society that had been thrust on them. They spent every last one of those two-dollar bills before returning to the comfort of their small town and cozy little store

They figured that if this was the worst of their troubles then their union would be blessed. And it was ... a dime and a dollar at a time they prospered and chuckled at their old-fashioned notion that cash was king!

I wonder, in the days of fraud, stolen identity, and massive debt, if Constantine and Gracy were so far off the mark. After all, a piece of plastic will never be able to tell the stories of a coin or a crumpled banknote. A piece of plastic will never have the appeal of a two dollar bill with old Tom Jefferson, peering as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa from his engraved minting.

How many stories like Constantine and Gracy’s would he tell if he could only speak?

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