Day 3: Of Love and Wind, Two Recurring Themes

Dear Tanna,

Considering the power of love, scattered on the Wind of the Spirit, there was John Lewis, another hero who passed from this life on July 17 this past summer. All the publicity since George Floyd’s murder in late May–the demonstrations against police violence, Black Lives Matter, racism, and white privilege–bring social inequities front and center. With each successive generation, the wounds re-open. We were all reminded of John Lewis’s struggle to grant basic civil rights to all American citizens when he died. Our local library selected his memoir as part of the adult summer reading selection. With a Zoom meeting planned that included Lewis’s co-author Michael D’Orso, a man Lewis claimed was like a brother to him in the book’s introduction, I wanted to participate.

The book itself was daunting, 503 pages of relatively small print. But the metaphor in the prologue hooked me, a description of a wind storm Lewis experienced as a preschool boy. The wind blew so strong it lifted a corner of the shack his sharecropper aunt and uncle lived in. Harboring in the shack with his aunt and fifteen cousins, they held hands and walked from corner to corner, bringing the house down to the ground when the wind began to lift it. That became the metaphor for his life, and provided the title for his book, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

Lewis was a teenager by the time I showed up in the world. I remember the events of the civil rights struggle of the early 60s as a child overhearing her parents discuss the nightly news. It was not until I read this book almost six decades later that I fully realized what had occurred during those years.

The chapters in the memoir flowed, easy to read. It was like sitting with John Lewis over coffee and listening to him tell about his life. And what a life! He personally knew the key players. John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.

He told of the first time he heard MLK give a sermon on the radio. It was titled, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.”

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to read King’s words? An online search for his sermons produced a website—www.kinginstitute.stanford.edu—that includes his entire collection of sermons. So I did read “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” in the year 2020.

Lewis was a key figure in all the civil rights actions: the restaurant sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, Selma’s Bloody Sunday, the efforts to safely register black people as voters. His premise was aligned with Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, a non-violent protest. Love your neighbor, even those who beat on you.

Why? We may ask.

Because they are victims of this unjust system too.

Imagine the strength of character needed to love someone who was busting your head open with a wooden club. How could a person manage that?  Lewis shared one of his secrets. You imagine the oppressor as an infant, a precious child of God.

I was struck by the uncanny parallels to today’s social and political climate. Lewis, a genuine and unassuming man, shared lessons he’d learned from MLK. “People who hunger for fame don’t realize that if they’re in the spotlight today, somebody else will be tomorrow. Fame never lasts. The work you do, the things you accomplish—that’s what endures. That’s what really means something.”

Does this remind me of anyone in the spotlight today? Absolutely.

What rights are guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act of the late 60s? 1) The right to vote. 2) The right to a fair trial. 3) The right to receive government services.  4) The right to use public facilities.  and 5) The right to a public education.

Sounds pretty basic to me, but for ages, a significant portion of our population was denied these rights. After the legislation, new practices skirting the edges effectively denied the same people basic human dignities others take for granted.

Has this changed in the 200 years separating you and me, Tanna? I desperately hope so. I hope that your generation experiences the blessings of Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community. Lewis never lost sight of the vision—one people, one family, one house, one nation. As a congressman from Georgia for the last years of his life, he answered to his conscience and worked toward policies that would benefit all people.

The last chapter in his memoir was a summary and a wish. “Onward” described the challenges he faced during the time when he wrote the book—1998—but it could well have been written during this last summer of 2020. The struggle for civil rights, for civility itself to be extended to all citizens in our country, indeed to all of the world’s inhabitants, seems never to end. Each generation must carry on and must learn and appreciate the sacrifices and struggles of the generations before. Slowly we may approach an equitable society, a new global economy that values not only human players, but the finite resources provided by our planet.

John Lewis devoted his entire life to a movement he firmly believed continued decades beyond the demonstrations of the 1960s. “I came to Congress with a legacy to uphold, with a commitment to carry on the spirit, the goals and the principles of nonviolence, social action, and a truly interracial democracy.

“We must realize that we are all in this together,” he said. “Not as black or white, Not as rich or poor. Not even as Americans or ‘non’ Americans. But as human beings. . .The next frontier for America lies in the direction of our spiritual strength as a community. . . It is not just materially or militarily that we must measure our might, but morally. . .”

“It does not profit a nation to gain the world if we must lose our soul—which includes our compassion. . . ”

“The alternative to reaching out is to allow the gaps between us to grow, and this is something we simply cannot afford to do. . . ”

“That sense of caring and sharing that makes us a society and not just a collection of isolated individuals living behind locked doors must never be lost, or it will be the end of us as a nation. . .”

I wonder, Septanna, how healthy is the nation in your day? How healthy is the planet?

John Lewis, a great man, concluded his final chapter with these words, “Talk is fine. Discussion is fine. But we must respond. We must act . . .  As a nation, we must move our feet, our hands, our hearts, our resources to build and not to tear down, to reconcile and not to divide, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to kill. In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house. . .”

Tanna, this is what’s at stake even now, two decades after Lewis published his memoir. This has been a hard chapter for me to write. I have struggled with it for weeks. How do I, an ordinary grandmother living in conservative rural Kansas, attempt to share what this man’s life has planted in my own heart? It’s too important not to try, though. So I offer these thoughts in honor of John Lewis. I desperately hope that he and other notable leaders we lost during the last few months—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg,—will lend their essences to our continuing struggle for securing human dignity and basic rights for all.

And, Tanna, I hope that, two hundred years from now, you will realize the results of our efforts.

With enduring hope and love,

Your seventh-generation grandmother

Day 2: The Power of Love

Dear Tanna,

I wonder where and how you live, so far removed from my own reality. Are there crowds around you? Or has the human population declined? Do you live isolated from communities? Or do you live in a town? Or a city? Is there any countryside left?

We live on a small farm, with a picturesque pond in our front yard. A few years ago, our daughter brought half a dozen ducks and they provided passing entertainment through the years. Ducks can be hilarious when you watch them.

But they provided moments of introspection as well. Sometimes a duck will successfully hatch a clutch of eggs and it becomes imperative to herd them into the hen house for their own protection. This world is a big bad place for a baby duck—cats, coyotes, turtles, skunks, opossums, and even duck siblings make survival a real challenge. Hazards await even in a hen house.

Baby ducks are some of the cutest things! But messy. With a capital M. And they grow fast. After incubation, when that first chip appears on the egg shell, you wait and watch with bated breath until the little duck fully emerges. I am astounded at how compactly they curl into that little egg.

But the ducklings don’t always make it to adulthood. One morning I arrived in the hen house to release the fowl for some sunshine in the fenced yard, and found one little duck dead in the corner, smothered by cuddling ducklings during the night. I lifted that limp little body. Recently vibrant, it had peeped to its mother duck, and ran to keep up with her. And now—nothing. The body was the same perfect little miracle, but the spark of life was gone.

Life truly is a mystery. You could have all the right ingredients, a perfect physical specimen, but without that spark, there is nothing. When I held my own newborn daughter, I felt reverence for the spark which filled her perfect little form with life, so recently infused from the great mystery, so close to the Divine. I closed my eyes and breathed in the miracle, a prayer of awe and gratitude swirling in my mind.

I have been reading more than usual these last months, due in part to the slower pace of life brought on by the COVID 19 pandemic. One book, Eyes to the Wind, was written by a young man named Ady Barkan during the time he suffered with declining health due to ALS, a dread disease which in my time is a certain death proclamation. In your time, Tanna, I hope this disease has become non-existent, but today it is an incurable descent into neurological and physical hell until only the eyes can be controlled by the spark of life trapped inside the withered body.

Technology has provided remarkable possibilities for someone diagnosed with ALS. Ady described his excruciatingly slow writing process, with a special computer mounted on his wheel chair that tracked his eye pupils to identify letters, one-at-a-time, through infrared light. He finished an amazing book this way.

Tears filled my eyes as I visualized his painstaking process. He was still there. His essence remained vitally alive, trapped in a shrinking world. When the control he exerts over his eyes disappears, the essence of the man will be vitally alive, screaming silently inside his head.

I thought of that duckling and began to wonder if the essence of Ady wouldn’t even still exist after his physical self dies? What will I discover about my own spark of life as I pass from the physical realm?

With more final farewells than I care to count in my own life—family members and friends, including two infant children, my first husband, my parents, grandmothers, fathers-in-law, friends—I ponder their sparks, their essences. Instead of simply being squelched like a candle flame in the breeze, their essences returned to the mysterious invisible divine pool, an ocean of love. They are with me still, swirling and caressing, whispering encouragement as I scratch words across this page.

It’s not a big leap of faith to include my grandmothers and grandfathers back seven generations when our nation was still young. The essences of Charley and Frank, Wiley, Eliza, Alma, John, William, Clarissa, Edwin, Edith, Thomas and even another Ann swirl around me—people I never met but who contributed to my own life and breath. And it’s not such a stretch to think that the coming generations swirl in that ether of love, all the way through seven to you, Septanna. You also are with me as I write today, the mystery and miracle of life to come.

I keep thinking of the miracle of life during these days of vicious campaigning. We get hits several times a week in the postal box or on our phones from groups bent on spreading blatant lies about candidates we favor. I hope my friends and neighbors can see through the propaganda. When one candidate has nothing specific to offer besides lies about the other, that is called negative campaigning. It lacks integrity and makes me angry. Why not explain what you have to offer instead of slander your opponent? Voters should go to the source and seek the “rest of the story.”

Take Dr. Barbara Bollier, for example. I heard her speak. She’s intelligent and compassionate—hardly the extremist the other side claims. Dr. Bollier is a physician whose focus in life is to make things better for people. She wants to heal the ailing government. The opposition calls her an extremist liberal. How they come up with that is beyond me. She recently left the conservative party due to its extremist demands.

They say she wants to take away guns, but she herself grew up hunting with her family. She is not anti-gun. She wants common sense gun control to protect children, and to keep firearms away from psychotic shooters. She wants to save lives. Who can argue with that?

They say she is in favor of late term abortions, when in reality, she voted against an late term extremist abortion bill because it was based on flawed science. It also represented an unconscionable intrusion into the patient/physician relationship by government.

If we acknowledge that every life is unique, does it not follow that no two pregnancies are the same? You can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy for pregnant women. If something goes deadly wrong in an unborn child’s development, there need to be options—legal, safe options, offered with love and compassion to a mother already in anguish. As a woman, physician, and mother herself, Dr. Barbara Bollier understands this. Furthermore, given our ailing atmosphere, chemically ridden food, and poisonous water supply, the chances of severe birth defects increase as the environment degrades. There must be options for desperate, grieving families.

For many voters in today’s world, abortion is a hot-button issue. I suppose we all have them. For me, the climate crisis we face overshadows every other issue. If we cannot arrest the degradation of the living planet, nothing else on the list of issues matters. Dr. Bollier has been endorsed by environmental groups. That matters to me. I want you to have a healthy world in your time, Tanna.

The most powerful force in the universe is Love. We’re surrounded by love, the essence of our ancestors and departed loved ones. And there is a big difference between loving compassion and regulating life through legislation. Dr. Bollier is correct. The government should stay out of medicine and leave it up to trained physicians.

And so, I plan to vote for Dr. Bollier this November because of her common sense, and her compassionate approach to the current issues. I hope she wins.

You are out there, Tanna. I lift my affection on the winds of the Spirit to touch you in the unrealized future domain.

With my enduring affection and best wishes, Your 7th Generation Grandmother.

Letters to the Future: Day 1

October 6, 2020. Four weeks from election day

Dear Child of Tomorrow,

I think of you often. I wonder what your life will be, and what you will look like. What endearing features will light up your chubby face when you smile? Will you have the same button nose I inherited from a beloved grandmother? Maybe curly auburn hair? Or will it be wavy light brown with blond streaks like mine was? Dark eyes that sparkle in evening light? Or eyes the azure of a cloudless summer sky, like my grandmother’s?

Of course, you will be a girl—a compassionate, resilient, brave little girl growing into a nurturing role model among your peers. That is my dream.

But your name? What moniker will your parents bestow upon you?

For two weeks, I have been addressing postal cards and writing notes to people I have never met, nor will ever meet, from a list sent to volunteers around this nation. It is a humongous effort to encourage reluctant citizens to vote in the November 3 election. In just four weeks, we will decide the future course of our nation. Will we turn toward democratic values? Will people be a step closer to governing themselves? Will our elected representatives be willing to seek compromise in demands from extreme viewpoints and meet in the middle for the good of all? Will they respect and honor each and every person, to hear every voice, and cherish every soul?

Or will we be plunged deeper into chaos and despair, cowering in fear and hate, mistrust and suspicion, divided by the antics and ridicule tweeted by our current leadership? For your sake, little one, I hope democracy prevails, and grows stronger in the generations between mine and yours.

What will the world look like seven generations hence? And what name will you be known by? There are so many names on my postal list, delicious names, unique names. There are good old-fashioned names: Erica, Nancy, Vivian. And there are names I’ve never encountered in all my years. Aymee. Nashawnna, Aaliyah. Egma.

I try to imagine these people. What age of woman would Jalyssa be? What ethnicity? What is Dyhalma’s occupation? Does Mirtha have children? If so, what age would the youngsters be? How does Lesharda spend her days? What challenges does Vida face? How about Tahirah? What’s her life like? Does Ilfrid have a supportive spouse? Or an abusive one? What keeps Zhone from voting in many elections?

There are so many names on the list. I take a moment to marvel at the diversity in this country, evident even in a list of registered voters. And I remember, from early ecology studies, how diversity lends stability. We need them all. We need their strengths, their opinions, their concerns. We need them healthy and educated.

Basti and Wysline. Judieky and Yatara. We need all these people to bolster our flailing democracy—for you, sweet girl, seven generations hence.

I will never know the name given to you, so I think of my own. My parents chose simple, traditional names for their three daughters, my three-letter name the simplest of all. The story Mother told about choosing our names was based on a recollection from her girlhood. In her small-town Kansas school, she had a classmate named Euphracine. Poor Euphracine’s name was hardly simple. It was years before she could correctly spell her own moniker, to the mockery of her classmates. Adamant that her own daughters never be similarly ridiculed, Mother bestowed simple names on us, ones we could spell as toddlers. I have always wondered if she expected her girls to be intellectually challenged—me most of all with the name Ann. Three letters. A. N. N. Plain. Ordinary. Simply Ann.

But I have few regrets through the decades of my life, so Ann was okay after all. It combines well with other words and syllables. I will think of you, a great-granddaughter of my unborn great-granddaughter, as Septanna. “Sep” is for the seven generations separating us. “Anna” for the connection to my essence. You will, of course, have many other genetic connections as your ancestors are conceived. But there will be a thread that leads back to me.

With hope that we can pull off the tidal wave of change we need in four weeks, I’ll call you Septanna Hope. Tanna for short sounds good. And I wonder what the world will be in your time. In my family, seven generations span two centuries. Two hundred years from now, will there even be life left on this gem of a planet? Will compassion and responsibility prevail to change our calamitous course?

For your sake, I hope so. And so I write. I write cards to strangers and I connect for a brief moment with 200 people I will never meet, one for each year that separates you and me. I say, “Dear Ruby, Glenice, Marisol, Joyce . . . Dear Laura, Fatemeh, Karen and Casandra, Let’s join together, let’s rise up, let’s vote our future in the Tuesday, November 3 election! For the sake of our children and theirs, we must vote with hope and compassion.”

For your sake, we must prevail, my Dream for a New Day, Septanna Hope, a blip on future’s horizon.

With enduring love from your 7th generation grandmother,

Ann

A New Chapter

Earl Nightingale said the hardest job you can tackle is thinking a thought through to its end. That’s what writing is. You get an idea and not only have to think it through but revise it many times to make it more effective.”

— Marvin Swanson

This morning I headed to the college in Arkansas City to prepare pianos for the spring semester. My mind was drawn to the day I worked at that same task one decade ago. While busy twisting tuning pins, getting the fleet of pianos tuned up after the dry winter air soured them, my phone rang. It was the hospital in Winfield. My dad had arrived and was having “a little heart attack.” To this day, I cannot fathom why the medical person called it “little.” They had decided he should go to the Heart Hospital in Wichita. Do I need to drive him there, I asked. No, she said, we will send him in an ambulance.

Thirty-six hours later, after a procedure in Wichita, after  my sister from northern Kansas arrived, after a lengthy visit or two in his hospital room, laughing and remembering, and saying “I love you,” after a last phone message recorded on my answering machine while I was en route home, (“Please bring my walking stick next time you come up. Don’t make a special trip.”), another heart attack took his life. It was January 13, 2010.

We were called back to the hospital late at night by a nurse who didn’t think he’d make it through this one. This was the Heart Hospital. She ought to know. Kay and I dressed hurriedly and rushed back, fretting through a cantankerous stop light that refused us a green, running it red, racing to the parking lot and dashing in, only to learn he had just passed.

And so, in that moment, the role of grizzled and wise family elder passed to my sisters and me. We were orphans.

That was ten years ago. I marvel at what he and my mother missed in those ten years. Though I miss them more than ever, life goes on. Things my dad missed include weddings of several of his grandchildren, and break-ups of others, births of my three grandchildren, as well as several of my sister’s, watching them grow,remodeling our house—complete with geothermal heat pump, solar panels, and wind turbine,

 

remodeling a building in downtown Winfield into an art gallery,

friendships renewed, new friends made, international travel opportunities, heartaches and joys, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.

Life goes on.

I also marvel at the way my dad’s death opened a new chapter in my avocation. He was a master at new chapters. And he taught me well. When you face inescapable changes in life, it is far better to embrace them and turn a corner to new adventures than to wring your hands in despair. Losing my dad reminded me that you can’t take life for granted. If there’s something your heart urges you to do, do it. Conversations and events in the days following his exit convinced me to return to writing, an ambition from my early years. It was time to finish a book I’d started 28 years previously. I’d put it aside to raise a family, and to get beyond the emotional upheaval of those times. For ten years now, I have risen early to put pen to paper. And I have finished three books in those ten years.

In the Shadow of the Wind went to press in 2014. Two years later I finished Sundrop Sonata, a novel of suspense started in my wild imaginings 12 years previously during the summer following my mother’s death.

And as I write this today, Sonata of Elsie Lenore, a sequel to Sundrop Sonata, is ready to upload to the printer. It should be accessible by February 9.

Book #3 has been an adventure of another kind, taking me to Cuba ten months ago, bringing new friends into my life and bolstering old friendships. (More about this in future posts.)

Three books in ten years. I think my dad would be pleased.

With his career thriving and a baby on the way, life looks good to Stefano Valdez, a Cuban classical pianist. Then a postcard from the past shatters his world. Days before the expected birth, he heads south to find the author of the card, a sister he long believed to be dead. Trailing her to Cuba, he unwittingly places his Kansas family in the sights of the crime ring that destroyed his sister. Will he discover the hidden message in her hastily-penned words in time to save his family?

It is Time to Get Creative

A Tribute to my Mother

At the women’s rally in Wichita Saturday, a lot of people carried signs that said, “I’m with her” (arrows in all directions); “I March for my Daughter” (granddaughters, sisters); “I March for Her” (picture of the Earth). My mind returned over and over to my mother. I marched for her. Though she’s been gone nearly fifteen years, I’m sure she would have been there in spirit.

Mother was born a hundred years ago today. Speakers at the Wichita rally often made historical references, and I pondered the social changes of the last century.

Helen Peterson, the fourth and last daughter of Frank and Mary Peterson, arrived on this earth January 22, 1918. When she was born the War to End All Wars was raging but would end ten months later on November 11, 1918. At the time of her birth, women had no voting rights, or property rights. The women’s suffrage movement was going strong. The 19th Amendment was ratified two years later, when young Helen was learning to speak her first sentences.

In April 1923, when she was barely five years old, her father Frank died after an emergency surgery to treat a bleeding ulcer. The operation was performed on the kitchen table of their farm house, and that is where he died. Helen’s widowed mother was left with four young daughters, ages 5 to 13. With no rights of inheritance to the farm her husband owned, Mary Peterson was evicted. She moved her girls to town and returned to her pre-nuptial career as a school teacher.

Helen remembered little of her pre-school days when Frank was around. But she had lots to say about growing up with her mother who struggled to keep those girls warm and fed. In the 1920s and 1930s, working mothers were social outcasts. Mothers were supposed to stay home and raise their children. Mary Peterson had no choice, however.

Mary Peterson and her four daughters, 1936

Tutored by her mother, Helen excelled in school. She graduated high school at age 15, went on to college, and had earned a master’s degree in physics before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Helen found employment in the east, as a physicist developing technology that would benefit the war effort. She possibly would have settled in the east.

Quartz crystal sample such as those Helen worked with for US Navy.

Her mother, however, developed severe hearing loss and was dismissed from employment. She sank into an inconsolable depression and Helen returned to Kansas to take care of Mary. Working at KSU in the department of Physics, Helen met the man she would marry. She settled into a new role as supporting wife, and a few years later, mother to three daughters of her own. Having missed out in childhood watching her own mother handle the role of wife, she blazed her own trail and devoted herself totally to the care and nurture of her husband and daughters.

However, Mother never forgot her roots.

A lifelong Republican of the Eisenhower camp, she was never shy of voicing her skepticism in regards to Roosevelt, or Kennedy, or Carter. But she proudly proclaimed herself, “a women’s libber,” and was an active member of the League of Women Voters. She had a big heart and wanted to help those who faced seemingly insurmountable challenges in life, but recognized how easily folks fell into a sense of entitlement with the public welfare system of the 70s and 80s.

I have no doubt Mother would be aghast at events of the past year, with hard-won rights being stripped from some of the most vulnerable citizens, including women. The last thing we need is to regress toward the conditions her mother experienced as a young widow in the 1920s. Helen would have been at the women’s rally chanting with the rest, “Hear Our Votes! Hear Our Votes! Hear Our Votes!”

And she’d say, with a twinkle in her eye, “It’s time to get creative!”

A block from her favorite Sunbonnet Baby quilt, possibly a gift from her grandmother

Mother’s childhood was undoubtedly filled with the necessity of using what was available in new and unexpected ways. True creativity functions well when faced with limitations. Take what you have (or what you are allowed) and from that create, construct, or devise what you need. It’s a skill that comes in handy in many of life’s endeavors, and one we should nurture in our children.

The nullification of many progressive steps over the last year is like a tornado of denials. Our limitations seem to grow daily. We are falling backwards in the progress toward liberty and justice for all. I can almost hear my mother say, “It is time to get creative,” the little suggestion she repeated often when my sisters and I found ourselves run up against limits, absences or lack of resources.

In today’s world, she might even suggest, “It is far past time to get creative.”

When today’s youth express their heart’s deepest desire to be “Make Lots of Money,” I am concerned. When our whole culture revolves around piling up numbers, when violence erupts after one person’s numbers don’t measure up to another’s, there is cause for grave concern.

Money is, after all, an invention of humans. It is a tool to facilitate transfer or acquisition of things a person needs. What are needs? Food, shelter, clothing, companionship, a sense of purpose. When a tool becomes not just the means to an end, but the end itself, it is being utterly misused. Beyond meeting basic needs, the accumulation of personal wealth seems to have become the only measuring stick we value. We measure our lives with something totally artificial.

What about things money can’t buy?

Chris Hedges wrote in Empire of Illusion (2009), “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power. . .which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death. Morality is the product of a civilization.”

We are regressing to an age that predated civilization.

What would happen if the bulk of us simply quit? Quit craving money for money’s sake. Quit worshipping the power allotted to those with the largest bank accounts. After all, power is proportional to the extent that we covet what others have.

Let’s just quit.

What if, instead, we honor leaders who demonstrate the mature attributes of civilization? Things like compassion, courtesy, kindness, encouragement, respect for others. Things like integrity.

Several of my elders who still breathe, read, and think have expressed grave concerns for the direction we’re heading, unlike anything they’ve ever known. They are truly afraid for our future. When we experience the limitations that nullify programs and institutions which served to provide personal security for generations past, it’s high time to get creative. Let’s think of new ways to care for each other. Let’s re-invent our culture and re-build our government of-the-people, by-the-people, and for-the-people.

I think Mother would heartily agree.

Happy 100th birthday!

Quilt made from Helen’s scrap basket by her daughter.

The Year Came In; The Year Went Out

http://www.amazon.com/Tears-My-Mother-Rashbaum-Burt/dp/145020399X

The year 2017 started for me in Japan. I read on my Kindle during the long flights and the first book of my year was Burt Rashbaum’s Tears for my Mother. It is a vividly graphic account of a family struggling with their mother’s encroaching dementia. Alzheimer’s remains a dreaded word for many families. It spares no group the horrors of mind disintegration.

Rashbaum’s account was deeply personal. The characters were patterned after some in his own family. He tapped vividly into the reality of what it could be like to watch your own self slipping away. Significantly for me, the author is part of my own family, the Jewish cousin who married into one side of my husband’s family. I enjoyed a few days in this cousin’s Nederland, Colorado home last summer, rewarding myself with a writing retreat in the artsy mountain community.  Before I left, Burt and I had swapped books and I came home with another novel of his, the 2015 release of The Ones That I Know.

http://www.amazon.com/Ones-That-I-Know/dp/1511961716

Like Tears, this story is based significantly on events in Rashbaum’s life. One of the characters resembles him a great deal, and another resembles his wife. Through the pages of this book, I again found myself immersed in post-holocaust Jewish reality, which unless you’ve been there is hard to imagine. It tells the story of a group of neighborhood friends, who grew up together in NYC and lost touch as adults. They reunite when one of them publishes a book about their youthful adventures. The book examines how connections of family and friends possibly go beyond the grave and revisit the same group in a fresh incarnation. It explores life’s purpose, as well as its challenges. It is a snapshot view of a variety of contemporary issues that have a basis in historical drama.

At the end, after reading these books, I felt I knew and loved my newly found cousins much better.

The year 2017 was ushered in for me by Rashbaum’s novel Tears for my Mother. It is fitting to conclude this book journey series with The Ones That I Know. Through my reading adventures in 2017, I felt my family expand. My circle of friends has grown as well, and that’s no small matter in today’s uncertain world. We hear much about alternative facts, conspiracy theories, rigged elections, international threats and climate change. The news media is under fire. Our courts are being stacked by extremists. Our constitution itself is on shaky ground. If one thing is clear, I believe that “the ones that I know” have something to say. As long as our constitution stands we need to exercise our right to write, to share our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our memories and fears.

Americans consider free speech to be a birthright. It is guaranteed by the first amendment. Free speech serves to hold the powerful accountable and for that reason we must defend it fiercely. Our freedoms and rights will exist only as long as we keep using them.

For all my writing friends and cousins scattered across the country—“the ones that I know”—I say, “Write on!” And may the force be with us all.

Sharon Cranford and Dwight Roth discover a distant kinship

Kinship Concealed by Sharon Cranford and Dwight E. Roth

http://www.amazon.com/Kinship-Concealed-Mennonite-American-Connections/dp/1937952428

The distinguished speaker rose after her introduction, an engaging and unique smile spreading across her African American countenance. With the ease of an experienced public speaker, Sharon Hill Cranford captivated the room’s listeners. She gave a brief history of her writing adventure, which started when she was confronted by a fellow faculty member at Hesston College in central Kansas, Dwight Roth, a white man with an Amish Mennonite lineage. He challenged her claim to the family name of Mast, a Mennonite name. Thus began their journey to discover a family connection through divergent lines of Amish immigrants to the US in the mid 1700’s. These two respected faculty members discovered they are indeed distant cousins.

The result of the research is a book jointly written by Cranford and Roth, Kinship Concealed. On the surface, it is a family story, a study in geneology that involved close examination of documents from Pennsylvania to North Carolina to Texas. Deeper down, it is a modern examination of the American drama resembling Alex Haley’s Roots.

I was captivated by the family drama unfolding on its pages. How devout Christians could rationalize the purchase of slaves was horrifying and baffling. I cried with Cranford’s great-great-great grandmother as she was ripped from her infant, a boy fathered by the master’s son. Nika was sold away south and lost in history, but never forgotten.

Charley Mast, Nika’s infant son, lived to be emancipated. He passed along his stamina and the desire to excel to his children. Highly educated, Cranford’s family members have earned distinction in today’s world as leaders in their chosen fields. Cranford’s speaking engagement detailed her own experience growing up in Texas during the Civil Rights awakening, the outright prejudice and obstacles thrown in her path by white people in positions of power. Yet she endured and has become an icon to her family.

That these two distant cousins could find it in their hearts to undertake such a personal examination of the sins of our fathers and reunite as kin, signifies a hope that the rest of our society might one day reconcile. The events of 2017 painfully confirm we have a long way to go. But, as Cranford writes in her prologue, “If this story encourages any portion of our society to reexamine its heart, it can play a pivotal role in breaking down the barriers of distrust and prejudice that years of pain and hypocrisy have bred,. . .”

We are, after all, one big human family, built on the same foundation. If we listen to Cranford and Roth, perhaps there is hope yet for our shared future.

Coming next: Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

 

Your Dreams are Over

Tribute to a Friend who Died much too Young

J. Scott, your dreams are over,

Snared in your youth by the Big M—

            Heartless,

            Trickster

            Devil.

Your gentle tortured soul now free

            But

Your words live on in our troubled world.

The genius of your soul—

Kneeling in awe of the literary greats

F. Scott (you know) Fitzgerald

            Hawthorne

            Rowling

            Thoreau

            Bronte

            Tolstoy

            Huxley

            Tolkien

            Dickens

            Lee

Spouting quotes from the pens of the masters

You read long before.

Once.

Genius.

The journeys you drew me into

Expanded my understanding of family.

We are all part of

            The human one.

You took me places I’d never dreamed.

            Courtroom witness stand

            Visitation at a Maximum security

Lockup

            Pre-dawn in the empty parking lot

                        Of the Johnson County Jail

            911 emergency call for an

                        Ambulance

            Visits to a residential rehabilitation home

Through it all you shared your dreams

Your hopes

Your disappointments

Your fears

 

Your open, gentle spirit showed great devotion

To young Kassidy, a child sister ripped by cancer

From this heartless life.

“I love God,” she taught from her heart.

“And God loves me. That’s all there is

            To it.”

In your world religion rejected and

            Judged you

            Without mercy

For your deviations from the norm.

Kassidy showed you—God Is Love.

But not even she could stop Big M.

You searched for your place,

A home that would love you always.

On the journey, you befriended

            The friendless,

Fought for those

            In the margins.

You took up causes of those

With little voice.

And you wrote for them.

Because you were one of them

And they needed you.

The Pen is Greater Than the Sword, Scott. Or the Needle.

And your words live.

            Even if you don’t.

Big M stole you from those who care.

In this age of rigid conservatism

And legal discrimination,

The civic powers criminalized

Your disability.  Your addiction.

When you needed help,

They served you blame.

They pulled the rug of security

And assistance

            From under your feet.

And you fell.

Forever.

In your words, “Life is suffering. . .

            But God is Love.”

As your spirit takes its first

Hesitant flight in freedom,

May you find the Winds of that Love,

And may they bear you

            Ever higher.

                        Scotty.

The wind is blowing.

Rise up with it and ride.

Decades of Memories: Memories of Decades

Sunrise. Sunset. Sunrise. Sunset.

Swiftly fly the years.

One season following another

Laden with happiness and tears.

                        -Sheldon Harnick

So goes the song from Fiddler on the Roof.

Earlier this summer, I was honored to be asked to photograph the fiftieth anniversary reception of some cherished friends. Fifty years. Five decades. Half a century.

Some time after that, I realized with a shock that my summer of 1967 held momentous memories for me as well. I had just turned twelve. In early June I was fitted in a Milwaukee brace, a structure of total spine length, from chin to pelvis. This was an attempt to combat the progressing scoliosis (curvature) in my spine and I wore the brace 24/7 for the next two years.

Fifty years ago. Overnight, my life changed. Childhood ended in an instant. One day I was rolling down a small hill in a friend’s yard. The next, I met sadness, despair and heartache. My life was changed. There was no return. Events and encounters during that time of life shaped my personality in many ways, some subtle, others blatant. Before the summer was over, my family moved two states away from the only home I’d known. Trauma after trauma.

I’ve heard it said that without the sad moments, you’d never know when you were happy. This rings true. Happiness and tears go hand in hand.

Swiftly flew the years, though it didn’t seem so at the time. Jump ahead to 1977, one of the happiest times of my life, forty years ago. August 6, 1977 was my wedding day, a day when I started a new life with my best friend from college, Craig Winter.

It was a hot morning. We had discussed the idea of an outdoor ceremony, but Kansas in August can be brutal. Instead we chose the small Methodist church of my grandmother, and fed everyone homemade ice cream at our simple reception.

Forty years have flown by, filled with happiness and tears. Alone today in Nederland, Colorado, I honor Craig’s memory. Our marriage lasted seven and a half years, until the day he flew away, an angel struck down by cancer at age 33. But he left me behind with a beautiful daughter to raise, another experience filled with happiness. And tears.

I headed west a few days ago, bringing seven-year-old grandson Donte, Craig’s grandson, to visit his mama in Denver. Donte had asked to visit Craig’s resting place. In the innocence and openness of childhood, he wanted to know where I “planted” my first husband. We took the short detour to the country church cemetery outside Lincoln, Kansas on our way to Denver.

Donte honored the grandpa he’d never meet, days before the 40th anniversary of our wedding. Words do not exist to describe the poignancy of the moment.

Forty years. Four decades.

I remember, Craigie. Happy anniversary.

Grandmother’s Stories

I remember being fascinated by the stories my grandmother told of her early days. Horses and wagons. Moving to Kansas in a covered wagon. The tornado which destroyed their farmhouse a few months before my dad was born. The floods they endured after record cloudbursts up-river.

What kind of stories will I be able to tell my grandchildren? Or my children theirs? What could happen if we don’t take immediate steps to change the direction we’re headed? These might become the good old days of fairy tales and adventure stories.

Just imagine. . .

The silver-haired woman smoothed locks of the squirming girl child in front of her. “Hold still, Cam, dear. Two minutes. I’ll get your braids done.”

“Aw, Gran,” the child protested. “I hate when you fix my hair. It hurts.”

“The longer we wait, the more it will hurt. Shush now and sit still.” She combed the locks with knobby fingers, veins of age rising on the backs of her hands. “If only I had a comb.” The woman sighed.

“What’s a comb, Gran?”

“It’s a tool to help work out the knots in a little girl’s hair.”

“You used to have a comb, didn’t you? Years ago, when you were little?”

“I had many things, Cam.”

“Tell me.”

“We had plenty of combs and brushes for our hair. And our teeth.”

“Teeth! You combed knots out of your teeth?”

Gran laughed. “Not exactly. We brushed our teeth to keep them healthy.”

“So they wouldn’t fall out of your mouth, right?”

“You remember, child. Yes. We had a lot of things you’d never believe.”

“Like what?”

“Like cars, to drive us wherever we wanted to go.”

“On wheels?”

“With rubber tires. And we had a whole house for every family. And plenty to eat, with appliances to fix our food.”

“What’s a ‘plance’?”

Gran laughed. “Appliance,” she pronounced the word carefully. “Appliances were tools for a house. There were refrigerators for cooling our food to keep it from spoiling, and stoves to cook our meals. We had tools that would chop our food, or mix it up so we could bake cakes and pies in our ovens.”

The old woman’s fingers worked quickly, easing tangles from the child’s hair. She traced a part down the middle of her granddaughter’s head and tossed half the tresses to the front, across Cam’s chest.

“Tell me about the water,” Cam said.

“Oh yes. There was water, running from faucets in the kitchens and bathrooms—water to wash our food—and the dishes we ate on. We had water to wash ourselves. Even our hair!”

“You washed hair?”

“My yes. There’s nothing that feels so fine as a soft and silky head of clean hair.”

“And you could wash every day?”

“Every single day. Twice if we wanted to.”

“What about the flushes?”

“Our fancy toilets? Every family had one or two in their houses—special thrones for a privy. And you could flick the handle on the tank and flush your products down with swirling water.”

“Like magic.”

“It seems so now, little Cam. It didn’t seem magical to me then. When you have so much that is right at your fingertips, you get lazy. And you take it all for granted.”

“Like it will always be there?”

“Exactly. Like it was always there and always will be. Then something happens that shakes you awake and you realize how lucky you have been.”

Gran finished the second braid, knotted the grimy ends and tied a bit of twine around it.

“Tell me the story again, Gran. Tell me about how you lost my grandpa.”

Gran removed a polished stick from her own silver hair and shook her locks until they cascaded around her shoulders. “What—has Philip given you a day off?”

Cam grinned. “He’s off somewhere with the scouts. Tell me the story again.”

“About Grandpa Stefano?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. That story.” Gran combed her own hair, smoothed it into one long tress and twisted it to the top of her head. Holding it with one hand, she fished the polished stick from her worn skirt pocket and worked it through the twist until her hair was again secured neatly on top of her head. “I think you’ve heard this tale before. Where should I begin?”

“Where you always do.”

“Of course. It’s always best to begin at the beginning. Come with me, Cam. Let’s walk.”

Imagine the wasteland where Cam and her grandmother would walk. Then think of the huge wildfires we’ve seen each of the last two springs. Think of the erratic and unpredictable weather patterns. Think of the epidemic of earthquakes influenced by fracking procedures. We could be one, maybe two, generations from a life very different from what we now know. Our choices matter very  much.

Vote, while you still can. Vote for a candidate who respects the voices of the little guys. If we can’t change our leadership, our landscape and our future could look very bleak.