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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

February 18, 2018

David Hogg

Alex Wind

Emma Gonzalez

Cameron Kasky

Jacqueline Coren

c/o Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

5901 NW Pine Island Road

Parkland, FL 33076

 

February 18, 2018

 

Dear David, Alex, Emma, Cameron and Jacqueline,

Under normal circumstances, I would never have had the occasion to learn your names.  I am delighted though to have watched your participation on Nancy Cordes’ Face the Nation this morning, and am joined by my partner, Gregory, in saluting you.  Thank you for working so hard to make this world a better place for all of us.  Your advocacy and straight talk to those in positions of power to affect change is laudable.  Our sincere gratitude is with you.

I recently retired from teaching.  I had been in front of a classroom for the last twenty-one years.  I have worked with scores of young people, just like yourselves, and have had countless conversations just like the one you had with Nancy Cordes this morning.  How can these shootings continue to happen unabated?  How can we continue to allow the senseless slaughter to occur?

Regrettably, our politicians have indeed let us down.  Bipartisan support exists for any number of life-saving measures, and yet the only thing we can muster in time of crisis is the apparent need for absolute silence on the issue and “thoughts and prayers”.  We, frankly, are done meditating on the problem.  We join David especially in being sickened by what we see coming out of the mouths of our political leaders, in desiring quite literally ANY piece of legislation to help stem the tide of violence!  We join you all in your anger, and more importantly, we applaud your temerity and chutzpah in speaking truth to power, in calling for action over inaction, and for pleading for our right to live in a civilized world.  We wish your group every success in its effort to organize a march on our Nation’s Capital.  We will be marching here locally in solidarity with you.

Before I end my letter today, please find enclosed a small gift.  It isn’t a lot, but being a political activist, and planning to march for one’s rights is hard work, and people get hungry.  As you and your friends work to plan your March 24th rally in Washington, DC, you might need a bit of extra cash to buy some pizza and keep your strength up.  We are always fans of extra cheese.

Thank you for what you are doing, and our wishes for your every success now and in to the future are with you.

 

Very sincerely,

James and Gregory

 

In the wake of last week’s deadly shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 people dead, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have taken to the airwaves and social media to demand tighter gun laws. Their advocacy and anger serve as a stark new facet in the all-too-familiar routine following mass shootings in the U.S.

The students say they will organize and march to hold lawmakers who take money from the National Rifle Association accountable. David Hogg, Alex Wind, Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky and Jacqueline Coren joined us to discuss the shooting, their plans for a march on Washington and what kind of legislation they want to see passed in the wake of the shooting.

The following is a transcript of the interview with the students that aired Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, on “Face the Nation.”


NANCY CORDES: Joining me now are five students from Parkland, Florida who attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They are David Hogg, Alex Wind and Emma Gonzalez, plus Cameron Kasky and Jacqueline Coren. Thanks so much to all of you for joining me and Cameron, I’ll start with you. You say the adults have let you down.

CAMERON KASKY: Well, the adults in office have let us down. Absolutely. And fortunately we have a lot of support from the older generations here, but what we’re trying to do here March for Our Lives is say, the adult politicians have been playing around while my generation has been losing our lives. If you see how they treat each other in the office, if you see the nasty, dirty things going on with them, it’s- it’s sad to think that that’s what they’re doing while seventeen people are being slaughtered, gunned down only yards away from where we’re sitting right now. And March for Our Lives has support from everybody. And at the end of the day this isn’t a red and blue thing. This isn’t Democrats or Republicans. This is about everybody and how we are begging for our lives and we are getting support. But we need to make real change here and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

NANCY CORDES: So, Emma, what is the plan? You say you want to spark a national movement. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to actually make it happen. What are you going to do.

EMMA GONZALEZ: Well what we have set up right now we have a website, March for Our Lives. We’re going to be doing a march in March on Washington where we get students all over the country are going to be joining us. These kids are going to make this difference because the adults let us down. And at this point I don’t even know if the adults in power who are funded by the NRA I don’t even think we need them anymore because they’re going to be gone by midterm election. There’s– there’s barely any time for them to save their skins. And if they don’t turn around right now and state their open support for this movement they’re going to be left behind. Because you are either with us or against us at this point.

CAMERON KASKY: We are giving a lot of the politicians that we feel neglected by a clean slate because that’s the past and we understand that. But from here on, we are creating a badge of shame for any politicians who are accepting money from the NRA. It is a special interest group that has most certainly not our best interests in mind. And this cannot be the normal. This can be changed and it will be changed. And anybody who tells you that it can’t, is buying into the facade of this being created by the people who have our blood on their hands.

NANCY CORDES: David, a lot of people saw the reporting that you did from inside the school while the shooting was taking place and I’m truly sorry that that all of you had to live through that. But I want to read to you what President Trump said last night. He said that it’s actually the Democrats that have let you down because they didn’t pass legislation when they controlled Congress. Does he have a point?

DAVID HOGG: President Trump you control the House of Representatives. You control the Senate and you control the executive. You haven’t taken a single bill for mental health care or gun control and passed it. And that’s pathetic. We’ve seen a government shutdown. We’ve seen tax reform but nothing to save our children’s lives. Are you kidding me. You think now is the time to focus on the past and not the future to prevent the death of thousands of other children. You sicken me.

NANCY CORDES: So what kinds of laws do all of you think should be on the books that aren’t right now?

DAVID HOGG: Well what I think needs to be on the books right now that isn’t is literally any law that’s from either side of the political spectrum. If you’re a Republican that supports mental health care we want you out there making your voice heard because that’s just as important as gun control or gun safety laws at this point because Democrats also want gun safety rules and we can’t get into any more debates. We need discussion. We’ve had the debates and people have died as a result children have died and will continue to if we don’t stop now and look at both sides of this because we can’t wait around any longer. Children are dying as a result. And we need to take action. And I call on President Trump and the Republican controlled House and Senate and Executive Branch to work together, get some bills passed and stop taking money from the NRA because children are dying and so is the future of America as a result.

CAMERON KASKY: And I just want to say something I’ve heard a lot is the word gun rights and that has the connotation that we are trying to strip people of their rights. Well first of all, we have the right to live. And second of all here at March for Our Lives at least for me. We don’t want to take the guns away from Americans. My father is a police officer. He has guns and I understand that having concealed weapons is good for protecting yourself. But an AR 15 is not needed to protect your house from robbers. It’s not needed to hunt bears, an AR 15 is a weapon of war and a 19 year old who is mentally challenged and has problems was able to buy an AR 15 easily. We don’t want to disarm America. We want to make America have to work for their weapons. And we have to make sure that everybody who has this kind of power in their hands has been cleared to have it. Because if Nikolas Cruz had gone through five minutes with any medical professional they would have said this person does not need an AR 15. This person needs a counselor and 17 people would not have needed graves.

NANCY CORDES: Alex, your own Senator Marco Rubio says that more gun laws won’t do anything. That anyone who wants to commit violence is going to find a way to get a gun.

ALEX WIND: If you think that, Senator Rubio, then change the way it’s easier to get a gun. OK? If you think it’s too easy to get a gun to do something about it make it not easier to get a gun. March 24th on the March for our Lives is only the beginning. This is the first march. But I can guarantee it will not be the last. We will be marching for the 17 we lost at our school. We will be marching for everyone we lost at the Newtown Sandy Hook shooting, at Columbine, at Virginia Tech in San Bernardino, Orlando at the Pulse shooting and at Las Vegas. This is only the beginning and March 24th things are going to change.

CAMERON KASKY: It’s not our job to tell you, Senator Rubio, how to protect us. The fact that we even have to do this is appalling. Our job is to go to school, learn and not take a bullet. You need to figure this out. That’s why you were unfortunately elected. Your job is to protect us and our blood is on your hands.

NANCY CORDES: Well, I know that millions of people are watching to see where you take this movement. You’ve already got tens of thousands of followers online. And we’ll be watching to see if you’re able to change a pretty entrenched political dynamic here in Washington. Thank you so much, to the five of you, for joining us today.

DAVID HOGG: Thanks for having us.

CAMERON KASKY: Thank you.

NANCY CORDES: And we’ll be right back.

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No Love Affair with Cars

February 16, 2018

I have never personally owed a vehicle.  (And to be honest, I also don’t have a cell phone.)  I, myself, drive a car on average less than twenty miles a year, and that only for two specific reasons: Gregory is too sick to get out of bed and I am making a run to the pharmacy; or, I am visiting my Dad in Maine where there is no sign of a public transportation system anywhere.  Even on those trips, Dad usually drives us where we need to go.  I am quite content to have a chauffeur.  Gregory has a car.  It is adorable.  Convertible top, racing stripes, heated seats, satellite radio, the works.  He isn’t fond of city traffic either, it turns out.  We drove the Green Rocket, as we have named his Mini, less than ten thousand miles in the eighteen months that we have owned it.  We won’t be going over the mileage limit on our lease at this rate.  (For the sake of disclosure, I have saved quite a lot of money in upkeep, insurance and fuel over the years, and in those lean years of the Recession, I was glad for it.)  Put differently, I am almost never behind the wheel of a car and am not often in the passenger’s seat either when I give it real thought.  I don’t enjoy the driving experience.  I never have.

Some people recollect with such fondness all of the vehicles that they have owned.  Mom and I put together a list of my parents’ fleet of vehicles over the years.  We had a ton of fun constructing the list, and Dad and I assiduously keep it updated.  Dad has owned lots of cars.  Old ones. New Ones.  Beaters.  Weekend cars.  He can tell you what make and year every car was.  He can describe for you the sort of engine each had and whether or not they gave him trouble.  I am at a loss to understand what most of what he recalls means; I am admittedly not well versed in the workings of the internal combustion engine.  (In high school, an idiot of a guidance counselor encouraged my parents to sign me up for the vocational program because she just couldn’t see me going anywhere with my education—I was the class Valedictorian, for Christ’s sake!  I defended myself, offering to answer any question she had about cars.  When I offered to spend five minutes under the hood of her own vehicle, with my obvious lack of knowledge of what I might find there, she relented and enrolled me in the AP English class instead.)  When it comes to the family fleet, though, I am only able tell you roughly what color the cars were.  That’s important information to have, right?

Were I to believe more in destiny and fate and other ways that we describe happenstance and coincidence, I would attribute my lack of affection for the motoring car to some of my earliest experiences.  I don’t though, but I will share the stories anyhow.  They are pretty good and make me laugh.

My mom’s first car, after my folks were married, was a 1970 Pontiac.  Noah’s Arc was likely smaller than that car was.  Good car though, in general.  Solid construction.  All metal.  No plastic or fiberglass in those fenders.  We had driven in it from Maine to Florida and back when I was not quite two years old.  Mom ran errands with it the rest of the time.  Dad tells me that it had a faulty two-barrel carburetor.  He was forever having to adjust it.  (In case you had to google what that is, like I just did, “The throttle (accelerator) linkage does not directly control the flow of liquid fuel.  Instead, it actuates carburetor mechanisms which meter the flow of air being pushed into the engine.  The speed of this flow, and therefore its pressure, determines the amount of fuel drawn into the airstream”.  What do I understand from that–if the carburetor isn’t working properly and well, then you had better pray for 1970s gas prices!)

One hot summer afternoon, Mom was in a bit of a rush and had stopped by her folks’ new place for a quick visit.  She was parked in my grandparents’ driveway and ran inside, leaving the car to idle in the yard.  The wonky carburetor overflowed, gas spilled on to the hot manifold (responsible for the even distribution of the air/fuel mixture to each cylinder and serves as a mount for the carburetor) when the darned thing suddenly combusted.  (This wouldn’t likely happen with todays’ fuel injectors.)  Smoke rose from under the hood of the car.  Flames were visible.  My apron-clad Grandmother, ever vigilant, spotted the nascent inferno and came bolting out of the house with a checkered dish rag in one hand, and a two-quart sauce pan of water in the other!   Whoosh!  Gram doused the hood of the car with the water she carried.  While she created a lovely amount of steam which contrasted nicely against the white smoke, her efforts to extinguish the blaze were regrettably quite unsuccessful.  It just so happens that two-quarts of water just isn’t enough to put out a vehicle fire.  The Corinth Volunteer Fire Department enjoyed more luck than Grammy and got there before the car burned too much.  Mom lost the gallon jug of VitaSun tropical juice frozen drink mix that she had purchased from the Schwans’ man only a few minutes earlier.  It was sitting on the front seat when its container melted in the fire’s heat.  The fire did not care how new the frozen juice was, or how much it had cost her.  What a mess.  The interior of the car was damaged beyond repair though and the insurance company totaled it; they refused to reimburse her the cost of the juice because it was not considered a part of the vehicle itself.  Mom resented that.  For years.  The burnt-out car was later hauled away to a junk yard.  (My Grandmother, we loved her, was able to hold on to a good stoic New England grudge better than most.  The heat of the blaze weakened two spots in the newly paved driveway at her ranch-style house—the driveway at the farm certainly was never blacktopped!  Every time we would walk by the holes, she would say to us, “You see what your Mother did!”  We were never more grateful to her second husband than we were the day he ordered new hot top for the driveway and forever covered the spots where the front Michelins had melted away from that 1970 Pontiac!)

With the money that the insurance company paid my mother for her loss, she purchased a 1969 Plymouth Fury.  It was Orange, in case you were wondering.  This car had a 3/8 engine (some sort of description of the power of the motor).  Some kids had previously decorated it with Road Runner (the cartoon figure, not the cool product logo) stickers, so that is what we named it.  The “Road Runner” was quite literally nearly the death of me—that may be a bit of an exaggeration but go with me here…  One day, in the center of Corinth Village, my sister who was irritated with me and had been fighting with me about something, opened the door wide and tried to heave me out.  There we were, on the main drag, in front of Ena Chapman’s old Victorian.  The rear passenger door (the one not aimed toward the oncoming traffic) swung wide before Mom could stop it.  There were no child safety seats in those days.  I grabbed onto the lap seat belt straps and held on tight.  I was only scratched up, from what I recall.  It is a good thing we weren’t going very fast as we turned hard to leave the Yankee Grocer!  Screeching to a halt, Mom lept in to action, gave both of our backsides a good warming, pitched us back in to our seats, shouted at us to be quiet, lest she give us something genuine to cry about, and flew off down the Hudson Road, brimming with embarrassment, horror, and a fair dose of anger.  We didn’t dare talk until dinner was on the table.

Mom didn’t have an easy time of it with us twins.  Mothers in general struggle with multiples, as they are known today.  My best friend from college has a pair of boys and wonders how mothers like mine managed to survive the experience with sanity intact.  Dad says that it is because Mom was a rock star.  He may be right.  In any case, it was in this over-sized orange boat of a car that Mom also attempted, at times in vain, to instruct us in the fine art of looking both ways in traffic.  “Melissa,” Mom wrote in an email to me when we were first putting together our list of cars, “scared the daylights out of me with regularity!  When asked if the coast was clear, [Missy] used to respond drolly, ‘All clear this way… after that car.’  By then, of course, we had nearly been hit.”  Serenity now.  Serenity now.

I could also claim that my aversion to the automobile was because of some deeply rooted sadness that I still feel because of an old Model A that sat on the rock wall, near a junk pile (in New England before towns had dumps, you made your own some place on the property) back in the woods behind out house.  I won’t though, because that would be a clear lie.  My childhood home sits on a small plot of land that used to belong to my Mother’s grandparents.  Well before Grammy Rowe, as we called her, had bought their farm on the crest of the hill, someone had disposed of the old car body and left it to rot away.  As our family pets, our beloved cats, died, we buried them with funeral honors there in front of the old wreck.  One by one, their little crosses lined up.  The old Model A stood guard over our grief.  (For the sake of closure on this story, my Dad just sent the remains of the old A to a scrap metal sale recently—they paid him by the pound for the rusted heap; he put the proceeds toward new automatic garage door openers for the barn.)

No, my aversion to driving is not new, but does not stem from a childhood trauma.  It is entirely on me.  I am always thinking about something or several things at the same time, often to the point where I get distracted.  I hate having to focus on the one task of not meeting my demise, the real chore that is driving.  It just exhausts me.  Had it been feasible, I wouldn’t have bothered to get a driver’s permit at all.  To prove my point, I was fifteen years old when I first took a driver’s education class.  Learn the rules of the road and try to implement them without causing yourself or anyone else injury.  That was goal that I laid out for myself then.  Mr. Pineo, formerly our fifth-grade teacher turned Driver’s Ed Instructor, was a patient man.  During one of the classroom sessions, Mr. Pineo asked us each why we wanted to learn to drive.  Most of my classmates, including Missy, spoke of freedom, of wanting to be able to go and do things that were inaccessible at our age.  Me, I said that I thought it would be a good idea to know how to drive in case someone ever needed me to get them to a hospital.  Seriously.  No wonder the other kids hated me.

Of course, Mr. Pineo also asked us to check the oil one day, raised the hood of the driver’s ed car and proceeded to inquire of me how that would be done.  I pulled out the dipstick, wiped it clean of the residue, reinserted it, as I had read was supposed to be done, and removed it again to further inspect the levels.  (Any activity like this can be made an academic one if one enjoys reading as I always have.)  “This is a fun exercise, Mr. Pineo”, I told him, “but I don’t know how you anticipate getting a quart of oil down that little hole”.  Embarrassed FOR me, he slammed the hood down, and laughingly told me I was genuinely hopeless!  I still to this day wouldn’t know where the hell the oil should go.  I suppose I could YouTube it, if I really cared.  I forget who it was when I was learning to drive that told me that if ever I were to be involved in an accident that I should back up and make sure my victim were good and dead.  Saves on lawsuits, I was schooled.  That just seems unethical, though.  I wouldn’t likely do that.

Missy and I took our driving exam later that fall of 1988, on the same day as several of our classmates, in Dover-Foxcroft, which we thought would be an easier time than taking the exam in only somewhat closer Bangor.  I climbed in to the four-door 1985 Chevrolet pickup, blue, and rode to the exam in the neighboring community.  Dad bought this three-quarter ton truck in Hampden.  It had a 350 engine and needed a paint job and a new cap.  Parallel parking in a vehicle that length was a challenge, but we both passed the exam and came home with a plasticized license (relatively new “technology” at the time) with a brown stripe across the top (the blue stripe would later be given to us when we had had the license more than one calendar year, and were over the age of sixteen, which was when we were then eligible to drive out of state or in Canada).

Since then, I have rented a handful of cars and have made my way with those.  Mostly, though, I walk, always choosing housing near my place of employment.  Or, when I was living in Paris, Madrid, New York or Washington, DC, relied on public transit.  There are so many advantages to being an urban dweller in places where people see the value that taxation can have in a society rather than furiously attempt to cut it at every chance despite the ramifications.

The only other time in my life when I had to drive with any frequency was that year I returned to Maine after two years in New Jersey, affectionately known, at least politically in recent years, as one of the arm pits of our great nation.  Mom had a little beater of a car that she loaned me.  I was teaching in the high school in Milo, thirty-three miles through the forests of Maine from home to school.  My male students were quite interested in what kind car I drove.  They envied anyone who had one of their own.  “What kind of wheels do you drive?” one asked me.  “Blue”, I replied.  If the boys didn’t think me manly, they sure as heck didn’t with that response.  It is ok.  I am impervious to the taunts of the pubescent teenager.  I survived the bullying.  No, the car that Mom let me drive was, she reminded me some years later, a Spectrum and was at that point essentially a ‘parts car’.  Its individual components were worth more than the object as a whole.  It had a few “issues” and was constantly stopping.  One could be driving and the engine would just up and die.  The best insurance policy for it was a cell phone—to call for a tow truck.  Of course, driving through the woods alone, the cell phone likely would not have had any reception, so I was more than likely screwed.  One day, in fact, a long day, one in which the only thing that was challenged for me was my patience, I was on my way home from work, the car was behaving poorly.  I was stopped by the police for driving so erratically.  The car would accelerate and decelerate just as quickly no matter what I did to the gas pedal.  The arresting officer asked me if I had been drinking, to which I replied in a notably annoyed tone, “No!  But you can rest assured that when I get home I will!!”  I explained that I had had a bad day at school with the little monsters in my classroom, and that the car was giving me troubles on top of it all.  When asked to explain, I hopped out of the vehicle with my can of WD-40 in hand and commenced to spraying the engine liberally.  I had been told that if I were to put the spray on the distributer cap, it would clear up the water on the engine problem by itself.  I didn’t know anything about any cap or how water would get in there, and the officer nearly peed his pants at the sight of me practicing my ill-informed repair technique on that hunk of junk.  When he composed himself, he told me that for my safety in the future, I shouldn’t likely get out of the car during a traffic stop; he then agreed to follow me home and to speak with Dad about getting a more serious fix for the problem.  He may have been laughing in his cruiser; I was plotting what size cocktail I was going to need.  Mom eventually sold the Spectrum to a family friend and her two teenaged sons who drove it furiously around a hay field until they broke the frame.  Good riddance!

If I have anything to say about it, I will likely never purchase my own vehicle.  It is an inefficient way to transport a single person.  I will continue to advocate for trains, which my brother, who drives a large freight truck assures me could never work, to carry our goods from one coast to the next.  I am sure my brother is right, after all, everywhere else in the world which has trains is completely unable to get products to market and are in the third-world, right?  His opinion may be based on a need for job security more than reality.  More importantly than all of that, I just don’t like the things.  I never have.  It is personal.

An Ode to Trees, and Words

February 6, 2018

I inherited my home on the shores of Lake Monona in downtown Madison, Wisconsin a bit more than a decade ago.  Local historical records suggest that the timbers to build this home were in 1892 cut from a single White Pine from the forests of Northern Wisconsin.  Sturdy stuff.  The same year that I came to live here, a street-side ash tree was lost to disease.  A year or so later, an awkward leaning spruce had to be brought down in the yard so that it would not impact the house; the same was true for a hackberry over hanging the driveway.  Because I believe in the wonder of trees, I have replaced each in time with a new tree and have added several others to boot.  A Dolgo crab gives fruit in the fall for jelly; a sugar maple will in another decade or maybe two be ready to tap; pagoda dogwoods, native to the area, are playfully phototropic; and a red spruce helps us light up the holidays.  I shan’t talk much about the trees that I have added in my “guerilla gardening” efforts elsewhere in the neighborhood as well.

My life, it turns out, has always been deeply connected to trees and the products we derive from them.  Growing up in Corinth, Maine, my childhood home was surrounded at first glance by hay fields, but also acres and acres of trees.  We called the area “the Woods”.  Tamarack.  Oak.  Maple.  Pine.  Spruce.  Poplar.  Birch, both gray and white.  Hemlock.   There were serene paths carved out of the trees directly behind the house where I would wander on summer days and visualize planting a perennial wonderland along the way–a peaceable spot where daydreamers like me could escape to ponder and think.  There’s a small pet cemetery there too, where our childhood playmates were laid to rest over time.  It is quiet in the woods.  Restful.

My Dad is a carpenter and cabinet maker of great skill, so our family’s income was directly tied to lumber.  From those majestic arpents, we derived raw materials for heating against the nor’easters which chilled to the bone, timbers for construction and wood for the interior décor of the home that my parents built in 1984.  Family friend, Henry Hartwell, helped Dad to mill some of them.  Sugar maples provided the occasional springtime gold in those years my brother tapped them.  Apple trees dropped the contents of autumnal delights each and every year.  They shaded the rhubarb patch to extend its season; and our deciduous friends acted as a natural fence between us and the neighbors.

If one were to take a broader view of the trees which surrounded me in my youth, it would be hard not to mention the paper industry which busied itself in the northern reaches of our state.  And, it may be to those sacrificial arbors that I owe the greatest debt.

From that paper produced in Maine, authors, writers, and casual wordsmiths found homes for their words.  So many words.  One of the teachers at the high school I attended, Anne Britting Oleson, is a poet and novelist.  She started there the year I graduated and I regret that I never had the opportunity to work with her.  Anne has for years said that she is in love with all the words.  She wants to marry all of them.  Well, she can’t.  There are so many that she is through her work forced to share with the rest of us.  Just in case, though, after I left high school, I went on to study a handful of other languages.  I will not be left alone without words, or books, if that Oleson woman ever achieves the success she desires!

I take responsibility for my actions.  While I was in college and studying languages, many a tree died in an effort to placate my ever growing addiction to reading.  I bought books.  So many books.  My office today is a veritable necropolis for trees.  Dad once asked Mom if she thought I really needed yet another dictionary.  Mom replied, “How many hammers do you have?”  The message was, of course, that the words that I found on the pages of my books were to be the tools which I would use to construct my world, just as Dad had used hammers of all sizes and shapes to mold his.  And, Mom pointed out, “He leaves his tools lying all around the house just like you!”

Dad’s garage, more like a barn, houses piles of lumber of all sorts.  Hardwoods.  Softwoods.  Imported and domestic.  Some of it went to create shelves to mask the addiction I have and make it more palatable to societies’ onlookers.  My bedroom at my parents’ home was lined with shelves, stained in a dark walnut color.  My home today has shelves and shelves of paper from all over the world too.  Are our collections really all that different, Dad and I?

Ask my brother, and he will tell you that I was so often seen with my nose buried deep in the spine of a book that I hardly had time to learn any “useful” skills.  He, like my father, became a contractor.  My brother is not wrong.  I like to tell people that when it comes to carpentry, I have much of the theory and little of the practice with which to be successful in that field.  But with books, I have reached over the years the pinnacle of my profession, helping young people to love and appreciate words as much as I have always done.  We’re like that, teachers.  And writers.  (If you haven’t read anything by Oleson yet, she is worth the detour.)

I have taught grammar, and literature, and wordsmithing for a number of years.  Trees and plenty of them, have suffered at my hands.  I have even given lessons on the idea of ‘duende’, a Spanish concept which at times attributes mythical powers to goblin-like creatures who inhabit trees of the Iberian Peninsula.  ‘Having Duende’ is an idea that the flamenco culture has elaborated over time to mean ‘having soul’, a heightened state of emotion, expression or authenticity.  Duende is then the spirit of evocation and it comes from inside.  It is that physical and emotional response to art.  It what gives you the chills, makes you smile, or cry in the face of beauty.  Author Federico Garcia Lorca spoke of this in 1933; he wrote, “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”  If it takes trees and plenty of them to create the paper upon which great ideas are published, then I am willing to plant a forest tomorrow and invite Duende to reside there.  Duende, perhaps it is just Words.  Feel their power.

All of this leads me to answer the question of a former student of mine who wrote recently, at my retirement from teaching, to share praise for my work.  “What books have influenced you over time?”, he asked.  Which ones indeed!

 

I used to spend a fair amount of time in summer at the Atkins Memorial Library in Corinth, Maine.  My grandmother, Marie, had been one of the first librarians there and had library card number one!  While the collection there was not nearly as extensive as the Bangor Public Library, where I would sometimes do research when I was in high school, you could find an array of the classics.  My favorites were Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows; and, Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

 

Karen Girvan, my English teacher in high school, is entirely dedicated to helping others.  She undoubtedly got that from her Mother.  Every year she fundraises so that other families dealing with the presence of cancer in their world can cope a little easier.  Saintly work.  One summer, before I joined her AP English class, she gave us a list of her favorite books and told us to choose a few to read and report on before the session began.  I fell in love with the works of John Fowles—who offers a real challenge to one’s vocabulary, and experience in savoring the most delicious previously unknown words—The French Lieutenant’s Woman; The Collector; Daniel Martin; The Magus; The Ebony Tower… Karen introduced me to the works of Anne Tyler—just a good read, not complicated—Dinner at Homesick Restaurant; The Accidental Tourist; Breathing Lessons.

 

Nancy Oldershaw, a former teacher of mine who later got me one of my first jobs as a language instructor, was a deeply reflective soul.  I am sorry to have lost track of her over the years—if you know where she is, I hope you will tell her how to contact me.  She was gifted in making me feel like a valued young person, and recommended a number of texts:  A Separate Peace by John Knowles and other ‘carpe diem’ novels and films (Dead Poets Society) and poetry (To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, by 17th century Robert Herrick as an example); and the works of Richard Bach:  Jonathan Livingston Seagull; Illusions, Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah; The Bridge Across Forever: A Love Story.

 

I stopped reading in English for a number of years when I got to Middlebury.  I dove head first into a magnificent pool of French authors: Andre Gide, Albert Camus, Le Clezio, Racine, St. Exupery.  Québécois authors, who I met later, joined me in my quest for new experiences:  Louis Caron, Anne Hebert, Louis Hemon, Michel Tremblay.  Spanish-language authors continue to fascinate me with their prose:  F. Garcia Lorca, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortazar.

 

The works of 20th century French author Michel del Castillo, especially his novel Tanguy or the Billsticker, would later be the subject of much of my research.  He helped me to see some of the beauty that surrounds us, despite the darkness which at times shrouded his life.

 

My re-entry into reading English after many years of distancing myself voluntarily from it has often included the works of Geraldine Brooks—well researched historical novels:  Year of Wonders; March; Caleb’s Crossing

 

If it be true that the trees today provide us with paper upon which to scribble our intimate thoughts; if it be the trees which allow us to make a record of those things which give the chills, make us smile, or cry in the face of beauty; if trees, unwittingly, provide a welcome home for Duende, for ability, for the true, living style, for spontaneous creation, then I must also pay homage to those who granted me the gift of knowing how to arrange all those wonderful words in patterns which make sense not only to me, but to those surrounding me.  While my father did not enjoy much success in getting me to understand how to wield a saw and screw driver with precision, he did give me the tools I needed to understand how things work.  But it was those teachers I’ve mentioned, and more, like Sandra Doody and Joan Blackwell, who taught scores of kids the rules of English grammar.  They explored the world through diagramed sentences and punctuation exercises.  They helped me to see that with a finite number of Words, we have infinite possibilities for creation.

It is thanks to those primary school teachers that I was led to Mary Perramond, a talented professor who continues to inspire me, and Pierre Patrick Haillet who introduced me to Grevisse’s Le Bon Usage (the French grammar Bible) and the use of the French conditional tense in journalistic discourse.  Mary encouraged me to dig deeper in to the structures of the language, and to question my professors who would best be able to help me find the answers I needed.  Pierre enjoyed precision in his work and expected it from the rest of us.  So did María Luz Gutiérrez, one of Spain’s preeminent grammarians, who helped me to see the even greater flexibility inherent to her language that my more rigid French structures could not accommodate.  I credit my eventual teaching style to lessons I learned in those grammar classes.  I found a friend in those professors and teachers.  I created a new nest for myself among all those French words.  Those Spanish words.  Those English ones.

There is an old saying:

‎”May our caskets be made from the wood of a hundred-year-old oak tree that I will plant tomorrow.”

If we don’t make it that long, may the words you breath and live today be recorded on some paper and stored on the shelves made from the mighty oak.  Ah, the power of trees!

Baby Clothes and Private Memories

January 25, 2018

A few years ago, when my mother was sick, I was helping her look for something she wanted from the back of her closet in her bedroom. She told me that she was saving a few things for my sister in there and that she wanted me to get them and make sure that Missy received them. But how? Getting to the back of the closet, where she thought this stuff sat, was, in fact, no small task. The closet was essentially the underside of our staircase at home, so, long and very deep. When I finally made it to the back, I found not only the items that she had requested, but I also found a laundry basket filled with neatly folded toddler clothing that I hardly recognized. I brought it out to where Mom was convalescing and inquired with her what it was for, since it has been a while since we were kids the size to need what was in the basket. I add, for the sake of conversation too, that we had moved in to our house in 1984, when I was eleven years old. We had not been the size to wear those clothes even when she had put them in the back of the closet!

Mom replied to my query, “You put that back where you found it. They aren’t ready yet.” Ready for what, my search for answers led me to say with a bemused look on my face, and she stated, “They are going to sit there until they learn to press themselves!” My Mom, who had hand created all the outfits for us when we were kids, later felt overwhelmed by just raising us twins. From what I could understand, she had given up on having the outfits look nice. For some reason which she would not share with me, she also could not part with the little outfits. I was told that the full-sized baby blue laundry basked originally sat in the bottom of her closet in the trailer, and then when we moved in to the house, followed her to the floor of her closet there.

How did these little outfits though not suffer the same fate as everything else I had ever outgrown? How were they not sent to the attic with everything else that didn’t make it from the trailer to the house in 1984?

No kidding. A few years prior to this conversation I was helping my mother, in an effort to reclaim a bit of space in the attic of the barn, and in an attempt to be of service to one of my brother’s troubled girlfriends whose kids were in need of some new outfits–Mom led the girlfriend to the top of the barn, pointed to an area and said, “I think the sizes your kids will need are in this area about…” She indicated a mountain of plastic bags filled with the clothing that we had cast off as teenagers as we outgrew them. Mom hated the idea of fussing with a yard sale and preferred to just put the clothes up in to the attic rather than spend all day trying to hock them to a neighbor for pennies on the dollar. The area where she tossed all that stuff though was more organized than what met the eye. In the big boxes toward the back of that area were all the little onesies and diaper aged clothes. In other large containers were brightly colored sweaters we had purchased at the Epstein’s sale in Brewer when I was a pre-teen. There were boxes of toys and bags of old coats. In short, the attic of the barn was where our discarded life went to die.

So much stuff! Of course, Mom, the daughter of Depression era parents, couldn’t let anything go. Everything could one day have a use, so you save it. In Mom’s case, that philosophy got a bit out of hand. When the girlfriend said to Mom that several of her other friends had kids that could use the other sizes. Mom walked over to the hay loft door of the barn, opened it wide and told the girlfriend to throw as much of it to the ground as her car would carry. “The key,” Mom concluded, “is that none of it ever return. Donate to charity what you can’t find a home for with your friends.” And she was serious. As the bags fell from the attic, I helped load them in to the backseat and trunk of the gal’s car. When she drove off later that evening, you couldn’t even see out of the windows.

I later recognized many of the outfits on the kids that I was teaching at the school in town. There was that sweatshirt I had bought on a trip to Mexico when I was in high school. Those sweaters all looked pretty familiar. I think I have seen that t-shirt before.

I didn’t persist in my questioning of Mom on why she was still so attached to those little outfits tucked away in the back of her long, deep closet; why she had saved them through a move from the trailer to the house; just why. She didn’t offer a reason and so I thought it best to leave it at that, even if curiosity continues to gnaw at me about it. I guess it is just a private memory that she has taken with her.

What I do know is that after that baby blue laundry basket, which was just the right size to be a play pen when it was set in the Lux suds-filled bathtub with tub toys for Missy and I to play, went in to the closet, Mom never looked at it again, and left its contents undisturbed. While she waited patiently for the fabric to learn to press itself, she was no fool. Her faith that the outfits would learn what she wanted them to was thin. She knew when I brought them out to her that they had continued to be disobedient. I don’t know why she kept them just as she had placed them some three decades earlier. Why she was still punishing those baby clothes, I will never know. What I do know is that she never bought another item that wasn’t permanent press. Laundry is serious business. Sometimes, laundry isn’t just clothes. At times, clothes are the key to a private memory about which the rest of us are not entitled to know anything more.

What do you have in your world which still holds private meaning? What do you have that will baffle those you leave behind?

Reflections on the True Meaning of Teaching

May 4, 2017

            I was always a good student, so good in fact that I disastrously destroyed the curve which could have saved several of my classmates over time from being grounded at home.  I graduated valedictorian from my high school class.  I went on to get not one but a small handful of university degrees, becoming so educated that I have even had potential employers tell me that I was “over-qualified” for certain jobs (to which I replied of course, “Oh, so you are purposely looking for someone underqualified?” or “I should certainly hope that EVERYONE is over-qualified to stock your shelves and run your cash register!”)James 1st day teaching

I, like many other good students, went on to become an educator because of some notion I had gotten in my head that education is everything—that education is the pathway to a bright future and personal fulfillment, that education represents the only true way to achieve the American Dream, that education is liberation and freedom.  I have believed so strongly that language is the key to achieving power and that good communication is the route toward conflict resolution (this was even the subject of my Valedictory Address twenty-six years ago) that I have been teaching French, Spanish, and English as a Second Language to students at all levels for the past twenty-two years.

But what sends me to my keyboard this morning?  Change.  I am considering putting my years of experience in the classroom to a new purpose and mission.  I am contemplating shifting the focus of my career and leaving the lectern in the next semester or two, and am wrestling with the idea of not being in a classroom, either as a student or as a teacher, for the first time in almost forty years.  I am not worried.  I am not sad.  It is just change and I am sure that my efforts to be of service to others will be rewarded if I decide to move on to something new.  I am also wrought though with questions like, “Have I made any difference?” or “Have I wasted my time?”  Given what has been said about teachers, and the teaching profession over the last number of years, I am sure you understand from where my apprehension comes.

I spent my early career in a variety of private and public high schools in New Jersey, Maine and Virginia where I served alongside consummate educators full of patience and compassion.  I was ‘in the struggle’ with mental health professionals at a facility for deeply troubled youth where I listened to the stories of a child who had thrown himself off the top of a four-story barn, breaking nearly every bone in his body upon impact with the frozen ground below, because he was trying to escape a different kind of pain—abandonment by his parents.  I have willingly helped an adolescent man, deaf since birth, secure a box of condoms at the local pharmacy so that he could work the girls in his class to a hormonal frenzy with his charm and handsome physique. So confident was he that when I asked him why he needed my help in that small New England town full of judgmental Puritans, he replied, “I may be deaf, but I know those girls can ‘hear’ me!”

My later career has been spent teaching adults in night classes at a local technical college.  While I am certainly qualified to be giving classes at a larger university to better prepared students, I have long enjoyed working with adults seeking to retool their careers or younger less affluent adults who have seen that level of education as a way to save money, make progress towards a larger goal, and still be able to balance the stresses of raising children of their own with the expectations of employers and educators.  Some, like ‘Miss Pink Pants’ who ripped me to shreds in front of a colleague only to later request that I write her the same kind of glowing recommendation that I had for one of her classmates, have been pugnacious; I declined to write that letter.  Others have been apathetic, leaving so little impact on me that years later, I have struggled to recall more than the person’s face.  You know that student.  He is the one who approaches you at the mall and you have to resort to generic questions such as “What have you been doing since you finished your studies?” so as not to appear rude by not remembering.  Others have been highly motivated and gone on to accomplish great things—and I am grateful to facebook for helping me stay in touch with them.  I count a doula and midwife, a lawyer, a medical researcher, a social worker, a pharmacist-in-training, a teacher, and a housewife, among many, in my list of forever friends, once students.  Only a very small handful have actually gone on to study French or Spanish further, and they, like me, all felt that they were using language like a superpower.  My hope is, however, that all have left my classroom empowered to see their own future in a different light. My desire has always been that while they may no longer speak or use the language skills I was directly teaching, that my students have the skills to break down texts which are more complicated than they can readily understand at first glance and see that in the grammar lies understanding of the larger meaning; that my students learned to see the world differently, through the cultural lens of another; that they simply learned that no matter where someone comes from in the world that our problems are the same and that by working together we can resolve those issues and understand each other better.  My wish is, as a Togolese student recently told me, that I have been able to be compassionate with my students because I have taken the time to imagine my life were I to have been in their shoes; that, as a Somali student said, I have indeed been the best teacher I can be.

Change.  I am contemplating using my talents in other ways after realizing that the public discourse that has led people to decry teachers as ‘glorified babysitters’ has led public policy in a direction which has left me after twenty-two years with nary a few thousand dollars in my retirement; I am grateful that a friend who passed away a decade ago left me his home, which I consider my paid-up future.  The same people who have claimed that ‘teachers only work a few months of the year’ have created a system where someone with as much education as I have is monitored and supervised in ways no other profession would tolerate.  In short, teaching is one of those jobs at which everyone feels she could do better, just because she had previously been in a classroom as a student herself.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It takes years to learn to be a great teacher.  And, as I ponder leaving the profession, I think to myself, “But you are just getting good at this!”  I also then recollect that, at times, the only thing left challenged in that work is my patience.  I wonder too that if I leave now, when I am at what feels like the top of my game, will I be depriving others in some way?  I hope the future students who I won’t work with will understand.

But there is so much more to teaching than preparing a perfectly chronometered lesson plan, than the ability to elegantly decorate a learning environment (from one’s personal treasure since we as a society have not yet placed value on these things through an honest budget process), than just showing up to work.  While I have perfected how to present the intricacies of the temporal forms of the indicative past in three languages, the parts of my score of years in a school room which I cherish the most have nothing at all to do with the actual act of teaching a foreign language, but rather the personal connections I have made with students over the years.  The parts of my job which have affected me the most profoundly have been those moments when I have touched upon the uniquely universal and singularly human aspects of people’s lives.

 

–I’ve shouted, “Stop.  Just Stop!” at the mother of a severely anorexic child.  I felt compelled to get this woman to think for a moment that her unrealistic desire for her daughter to go to Harvard, when the child wanted to go to the local university to study to become a kindergarten teacher, may in fact be the cause of her daughter’s severe illness.  I shook that mother by the shoulders and beseeched her to allow her daughter to not only get treatment for her illness but to also chart her own path for the future.  I warmly took that same mother’s hand and let her know that she was understood.  (After, almost two years of family counseling and a lengthy in-patient stay for the daughter. the Mother tracked me down to mail me a thank you note.  I may, as she stated in her punctilious script, have saved all of their lives in one way or another.)

–I’ve volunteered time to teach students how to be culturally aware so that they would, in turn, be able to help small communities in Latin America change lives through dental hygiene lessons, building losa stoves to dramatically change the sorts of women in remote villages who one had to stoop long hours over a pit fire to cook for their families.

–I’ve risked my job through what may have been perceived as “inappropriate contact” (offering a good and solid hug, the kind you don’t let go from) in order to keep a student’s world from spinning off its axis and falling in to the deep darkness of outer space.  The girl’s mother and brother were murdered in a carjacking that day and she was suddenly an orphan and alone.

–I’ve sat Shiva with the family of a young man who perished as a result of severe hypothermia when his bipolar disorder told him he should walk the rails from Central Maine to Canada in subzero weather.  He had been a gifted math student with visions of changing the world one day for all of us.  Seven days with his disbelieving father by my side changed me.

–I bullied two young men in to behaving more responsibly by relying on some of my brother’s former (reprobate) friends to give me information about the students’ drug use.  By accessing information about who their dealer was, how much he was charging, and threatening to share that information with those in power to make their lives far worse, I was able to get their attention and keep it. What they really wanted was for someone to give a hoot about them, and to hear their story.  Much to the administrator’s surprise, they were fine students of French, when I was done with them.

–I’ve listened to the pleas of a distraught mother, unable to bring stability to her daughter’s existence, as she asked me to give up my Saturdays to take Swing Dance lessons with that daughter so that her child could be assuredly safe and unable to do harm to herself.  By the end of our lessons, we were pretty slick dancers, if I say so myself.

–I’ve pulled a free-lunch fourth-grader on to my lap to ask him why he did not always come to school.  He had at eleven in the morning sped up the school’s driveway on his flashy red bicycle, and entered my classroom with a certain level of fanfare.  “Don’t hassle me, Teach!” he declared over his shoulder as he took off his knapsack, “I am only here for lunch.”  While he had no one to make sure he got to school every day to learn, he did know where a good hot meal, the only one he would get that day, could be found.  The truancy officer I made contact with during my planning period helped the family view the little guy’s education a bit more amply.

–I’ve tried everything to calm a distressed nine year old, up to and including calling his mother to come fetch him from school.  The next morning, when I inquired as to how he was doing, was met with the utmost of serious tones:  “I don’t know how you do it!  Every day.  Every day there is something new to learn!” he uttered.  It is good to recognize one’s own limits.

–I’ve endured the plaintiff sobs and crocodile tears of students wishing to manipulate their way to a good grade rather than do the hard work required to be successful.  “When you are all done being a martyr,” I have said, “come back and join us.”  A martyr indeed, said one a few years later after she had completed her degree, “I thought you were such a bastard that night, but I have come to realize that you were right.  The only one suffering was me, and it was my own fault.”

–I’ve read a personal essay, written as a classroom exercise, so disturbingly dark that I invited the student to join me on a walk to meet a friend of mine in the counseling office of the school.  It was the end of the summer session, and I never saw that student again, though she did later pen me a letter to tell me that she had been contemplating ending her life that day and that she was grateful that I saw in her pain someone worth saving.  She had been admitted to the hospital that afternoon where she remained until her world seemed less bleak.

–I’ve taken that midnight phone call from a student who just lost his father to suicide and who felt he had no other place to turn to make sense of it all.  I would later make lunch for the fellow, listen to his story and learn of his special relationship with his dad so that I could, as he wept, compose the eulogy which he would deliver to a crowd of several hundred of his father’s family and friends.

 

But above all of this, I, like all of the best teachers I have had in my lifetime, offered friendship and caring and in the process learned something about the true meaning of love and family.  Fourteen years ago, an elderly gentleman, began my courses hoping to be able to speak to his late Cuban mother in her own language “when he got to the other side”.  We remained friends upon his completion of his course of study.  Shortly after, when it became apparent that my elderly friend needed extra help with his daily living tasks, he asked if I would serve as his P.O.A.  As his level of needs increased, and the authority granted me under the POA was exceeded, I petitioned the Court to become his legal guardian.  I saw my friend and student through his dementia to the end of his days.  He is now interred in a Florida cemetery next to his beloved Mother.  I hope they are chatting it up but good, in her native Spanish, his native English, or just through the kind of love that would push a 78 year-old to study a foreign language in the first place.

            It is thanks to this man, at the time some thirty years my senior, that I have a new career path to contemplate following. A few years ago, I decided that it was time to formalize my work as a legal guardian.  I began the process that summer to found Wilson Advocacy and Guardianship to provide myself in my work as power-of-attorney and legal guardian with the legal protections afforded like corporations, as well as to formalize many of the processes by which I conduct my business, becoming more professional.  As Wilson Advocacy and Guardianship I have undertaken the work of codifying many of my processes.  I have sought training with the National Guardianship Association, the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, and others to improve the craft of serving as a guardian.  And because I can’t seem to get away from teaching entirely, I have offered professional development opportunities to my employees who provide companionship and other services to my clientele.

In my advocacy work, I seek above all to focus on quality of life for my clients.  From hiring a Santa Claus to visit the assisted living, to organizing a SuperBowl tailgating party for fifteen older sports fanatics, to arranging for a weekly visit from the library book mobile for an avid reader, I have tried to make the little things in life count for something too.  Through person-centered surrogate decision-making in the areas of personal, financial and medical management, I have sought to honor the spirit of what my client would want for him/herself so as to insure that with the right combination of support and opportunity that my client can experience his/her own individual potential, however limited that may be.  I strongly desire that my clients actively participate with family, friends and other valued relationships to create a life that is joyful and fulfilled.  And most importantly, I still believe that educations empowers, that we can learn new things at any age, and that communication is at the heart of happiness.  While a person suffering dementia may not be the one initiating conversation any longer, our job as the people who love and care for that soul is to relearn how we communicate with him.  Do we help that person out by holding both sides of the conversation?  Do we need to perhaps fill in those words she can’t find?  Or perhaps, we need only to sit and be together, smile together, and enjoy the simple pleasure of being with one another.  There is a grammar to kindness, and it is far less complicated than the use of fourteen verbal tenses I have been teaching for so long.  It takes a subject, a friend; a verb, an act of generosity; and an object, empathy, to make a complete sentence.  Abandon your desire to send just a ‘text message’; listen, really listen to each other.  Live.  Learn. Teach.  Words to live by.

            As I decide when and how I might exit the stage from classroom teaching, I ask you too to think about those people who have influenced you over time.  I have had trained professionals who guided me along the way, and many students from whom I learned a great deal.  But how does one say thank you for something like that?  I am also wrought with questions like, “Have I made any difference?” or “Have I wasted my time?”  If you’ve had someone in your life who has impacted you, send that person a note and let them know it.  Hearing that you have helped someone along the way is a surefire way to encourage someone to be helpful to another in the future as well.  If I have somehow been that person for you, drop me a line.  Assure me that I have fought the good fight and can move on to help others in a different way.  I’d love to hear from you if you felt I made a difference.

Cultivating Memories

April 21, 2017

              PD_0030  It’s a sunny day out this morning.  The sky is blue and from the sound of the birds in the yard, all is well.  In some ways, I suppose it is; in other ways, not so much.  My sister, Melissa, has called for the third time in as many weeks with news from home.  It hasn’t been good news.  About ten days ago, my grandmother’s brother, Arthur, passed away.  He was 86 and a longtime resident of Ohio; he had spent much of his working career as a truck driver hauling freight.  His wife, Nancy, had called Sherwood, my step-grandfather, to let us know.  Nancy and Sherwood are both 81 themselves.  Today, Melissa called to let me know that shortly after midnight, Grammy Sweet, Arthur’s older sister and my grandmother, had ended her struggle as well.  She had just turned 88 on the twelfth.

                Grammy had been ailing for the last number of years.  A nick in her vocal cords during a surgery a number of years back left her impaired.  Breathing was challenging, swallowing impossible.  Conversation with her has been limited in that time.  She has had, much to anyone’s delight at a time like this, a faithful and compassionate set of caregivers.  Sherwood, who she had married in 1982, has been by her side each and every day.  He is heartbroken this morning; his new role as a widower is not one he is likely to accept easily.  His brother, Merrill, in a similar situation, will undoubtedly help him through this; I doubt though that it will be easy.  Chris McCorrison, Gram’s devoted neighbor, has done so much.  There is no way to thank someone for that kind of generosity.  Melissa, too, has dedicated much of her energy in the past few years to keeping Gram company, and helping out when Sherwood needed to be absent from the home for a period of hours.  She is to be commended for the friendship she brought to that little home on the Hudson Road where my grandparents had retired from farming.

                (Melissa has not been having an easy time of it, and so if you have a few extra thoughts and healing energy to share, you are welcome to send some her way.  On top of all of this, she lost her cat, Piglet, this week.  Piggie, as he was affectionately called, was named for a habit.  Piggie loved to eat.  In a stroke of irony, he passed away, from an apparent heart attack, sprawled out right there in front of his food dish.  There was a bare spot at the bottom of the bowl.  That was probably too much for him to bear.  We are delighted though that he went doing what he loved the most.  Isn’t that something we all want?)

                Grammy’s cousin, Robert, who is 93 now, is the last of his generation.  His younger brother, Phil, has been gone some 24 years now.  Grammy’s younger brother, Ashley, was lost to a tragic accident some years back, and with the passing of Arthur and Marie both this Spring, Robert is all that remains of that generation which survived the Great Depression on rural farms in Maine.  We pray for his continued good health, and for that of his lovely wife, Bev.

It’s a sunny day out this morning.  The sky is blue and from the sound of the birds in the yard, all is well.  We have plans to help Gregory’s aunt rehabilitate a flower bed this afternoon.  We may stop at one of the gardening centers and buy some gladiola bulbs, my grandmother’s favorites, to plant and enjoy later this summer in her memory.  I love the alter-cloth purple Maine lupine; Gregory is most fond of the blue morning glory.  My Mother enjoyed the red rosa rugosa that surrounds so many of Maine’s lighthouses and her Dad, who would have been 101 this year had he survived, enjoyed the pink and white bleeding heart the most.  My great grandmother Rowe, named Marion like Mom had been, had lemon lilies in her flower patch, and her father treasured the white Dutchman’s breeches.  I’ve some of each of these in my yard.  While the neighbors all think we are competing with the local botanical garden, we’re really cultivating memories.  Perfectly renewable and restorative nostalgia.  Join me, if you will, in planting something beautiful today.  Do it in memory of someone you’ve been missing.

Grammy

January 3, 2017

My grandmother isn’t well.  I am sure she would appreciate your prayers, if you’ve any to spare.  Or even just some nice thoughts, really.  It isn’t easy being sick.  Her husband too would welcome your support.

Grammy Sweet, as we grew up calling her, has led a nice long life.  Sweet?  Because that was my Mother’s maiden name.  Not because of a personality trait.  Her name would likely have been Stoic, had that been the root.  Grammy was born that spring just before the stock markets crashed in 1929.  (She’s an Aries while my sister and me, well, we’re of the more bull-headed Taurus variety from later in the month of April.)  Think of how she was sixteen years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; she had no more idea than Grampy, who helped construct the Tinian airstrip which took out Nagasaki, that history of that gruesome sort was about to play out.  (Grampy didn’t find out what the airstrip was used for until long after he had returned stateside.)  She didn’t have personal contact with the war, in essence.  Grammy was not all that helpful when the history teacher sent us kids home with the instruction to interview a survivor of the war.  She was, after all, just twelve years old at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; she was just five years old at the beginning of the year that radar was invented.  Both changed the world, but she was doing homework and chores.

Grammy was raised, initially any way, on a farmstead now no longer standing, on a road no longer in use, in a small rural town in central Penobscot County.  You would not be able to find the place any longer.  The logs once used as paving in the soft parts of that road have rotted away and the road itself has been largely reclaimed by scrubby trees.  Oh.  You can tell the trees are younger than the ones surrounding them, but when there are so many, you have to be paying attention pretty well to understand what time has really accomplished.  That old house, where Grammy Sweet was a tike, is today, just a cellar hole that was mostly filled in with rubble some years back.  The outline of the house is easiest to spot in springtime because the flower bulbs that my great grandparents left behind when they moved to their larger home at the top of the hill from where I grew up still remain.  Daffodils, tulips and snow on the mountain greenery dot the landscape.  Dutchman’s breeches and bleeding hearts fill the area under some now large oaks.  Some lovely white lilac, and the gladiola bulbs Grammy Rowe (Grammy Sweet’s Mom) loved were brought to the Corinth home on the Marsh Road, as were some of the apple trees and a current bush that got to be the size of a tree when I was young.  The grapes, the gooseberries, the rhubarb, they too may have come from Garland at the home where my Grandmother’s Grandparents resided, but it is hard to say with only one left, an elderly cousin of Gram’s, himself now in his nineties, to tell the old stories again.

Grammy Sweet’s upbringing was modest.  She was raised in farm country.  Her Dad, formerly the town clerk, among other duties he held in town, was the son of a school teacher and took the lessons he learned as a child at his Dad’s insistence and made a hobby of them.  He’d sit and calculate math equations for the fun of it, assuredly more challenging than making sure the town’s birth, death and marriage registries were neat, legible and orderly.  Her Mom was a strong Baptist woman who kept order in her home and farmette.  She didn’t allow for waste, writing on the backs of old envelopes as scrap paper and prohibiting my Mother, in her youth, from “hanging out of the icebox”.  Stray emotions were not free range in that household either, from what I have understood over time.  Good Old New England stock.  Grammy Sweet had a strong work ethic and never suffered from idle hands.  She was one of three kids.  The eldest.  The only daughter.  They all worked hard.  She would go on to have two kids of her own.

My Grandmother knows a thing or two about devotion and caring.  As role models go for relationships, I would say she ranked world class.  She was married in 1947 to a farm boy returned from the war, Gene, who admired how nicely she looked bent over in the potato field.  They were married some thirty-three years when he passed away in the winter of 1980, the year I was seven, and not long after he had bought me my first ten speed bicycle.  A red one.  From the Western Auto store.  It was a warm Christmas that year.

She was remarried two years later to a different sort of farmer.  They have been together ever since.  That was thirty-five years ago now.  And, if you are doing the math, you have discovered that my Grammy Sweet has spent sixty-eight of her eighty-eight married.  She wouldn’t have missed those two in between had she been able to choose.  She would have done all seventy.  She’s never complained of it though.  She has been happy twice, and differently.  With her first, she was a Mother, and a generally good one.  With her second, she was a farmer’s wife who had a bit more freedom to travel and spend the cold of winter in Florida.  Different.  Not necessarily better.  We have always been grateful to both of the men who have loved her over time.  We mourn the first.  Her second has his own health travails, but he is by her side day and night and cares for her deeply.  You can’t pay for that level of compassion anywhere.  He’s a good husband.  In short, Grammy celebrated twenty-five years of marriage on two separate occasions.  Many can’t manage to get to once.  Sadly, I was not able to attend either of her parties.

Grammy Sweet has been since shortly after she was first a bride a member of the Methodist church in town.  She never really said, at least not to me, why she left the Baptist Church her mother attended.  Her friends, like Helen, were Methodists.  I suppose that is what explains it.  Grammy dedicated much of her adult life to working with the Couple’s club there.  She served countless dinners and suppers at the church.  Catered weddings.  Hosted funerary luncheons.  She bamboozled more than just me with her large pots of hard boiled eggs at the church kitchen.  Just come help Grammy peel a few eggs, she said slyly of the small bowl of eggs on the counter near where she and her gal pals gossiped. Oh, my, look how well you did with those.  If you take a few more eggs out of that pot, you can show me how well you can do with those too.  Do you know how many eggs it takes to prepare a feast for a small town festival?  I do.  Too many.  We should have been watching our cholesterol anyway.  She was also a “worthy matron” of her local Order of the Eastern Star.  Quite an honor.  She made several of her friends quite jealous with that election.

Born nine and one half pounds.  Graduated salutatorian of her class where she was in sports (almost unheard of), dramatics, prize speaking and editor of a school publication, she and I had a lot in common that way.  We never managed to bond over it all though.  I can’t say why.  She was one of the town’s very first librarians, holding for many years ‘card number one’; I held card number thirty-four for a spell as a child.  I don’t know who has that card now.  Those were the days when your card still slid in the back pocket of the book when you checked it out.  Perhaps they don’t use cards any longer; I bet they do though.  She held jobs as diverse as clerk for a local auto parts store, to school bus driver.  She used to do secretarial work for the undertaker, retiring from that job when Clarence appeared to have kicked the inside of his box while she was recording the flowers recently arrived for his funeral.  (Turns out that the undertaker’s youngest daughter was getting drum lessons at school.  She should have warned Grammy she was going to practice.)

She made the best peanut butter cookies.  Criss cross fork design on the top.  Golden brown.  And, before people started tampering with Tylenol and kids’ Halloween treats, she used to make popcorn balls that were simply to die for:  good and sticky!  She combined 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup molasses, 1 and 1/2 tbls. butter and 1 tsp vinegar.  She brought that to a boil and added 1 tsp. vanilla.  Poured over two quarts of popcorn.  Stir and from the balls.  She got mad when Grampy let us kids help him shell two large pails of peas for dinner, but only end up with about a pint of peas in a small pan.  We weren’t allowed to ‘help’ after that.

We’ve not had much of a relationship, Grammy and I, since I left for college.  I’ve missed out on that last quarter century.  Lots of reasons, I suppose.  Stoicism being one of them.  My being too much like my Mother, and she in turn “Just like your Father”, as Grammy used to yell at Mom in frustration.  We both took the screams as badges of honor.  Mom and Me.

I am grateful to the people who have played a larger role in her life though.  Neighbor, Christine McCorrison, has been a God-send.  Her fresh out of the oven ‘left overs’ have sustained Grammy’s husband throughout Grammy’s long illness.  She claims that she does it just because Grammy was the one who introduced her to her church family.  The rest of us know it is because Christine has a saintly side we can’t quite appreciate fully.  Helen True has given her more than seventy-five years of friendship.  Helen Parkhurst, who just lost her husband recently, wishes her well even though they haven’t seen each other in a number of years.  There are kind and generous souls out there.  I wish I could recognize them all.

With all that said, if you have a bit of extra time for thoughts of kindness and compassion, send a few my Grammy’s way.  She sure could use them right now.  While she can’t make you a baked good in appreciation, I will gladly send you some of her favorite recipes which sustained us as a family over time instead.  And if you run in to any of her friend’s, give them the hug you might have offered Marie.  Tell him or her that the hug was from me.