Saturday, September 16, 2017

September 15

History was never my best subject. Truth to tell, next to phys ed, it was my most challenging. (At least in history class I didn’t have to climb the ropes!)

 History always seemed to me to be a list of dates to be lined up against a list of names or battles. The fact that one event was connected to the next, that there was a story to tell, somehow escaped me. 

Perhaps if I had read Gone With the Wind more carefully, I would have figured that out, but I made my way through that 1000-page tome skipping over the battles and forging ahead to read about Scarlet’s love life.

Fortunately I have grown up and realize now that an understanding of history is essential if we are ever to make sound decisions. Good teachers, good books, and Ken Burns have all helped, but maybe what has helped the most is living through 72 years of history.

When my younger friends read that yesterday marked the day in 1963 when the KKK set off a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls, they are reading history.

To me, it is a vivid memory. I was a freshman in college when I heard the names Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley read on the evening news. 

Those names were added to a growing list including 14-year-old Emmett Till murdered in 1955 and Medgar Evers murdered in the driveway of his home just three months earlier.  

They would be followed by Andrew Goodman, James Earl Cheney, and Michael Schwerner just a year later, and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1968, and many others.

As the events in Charlottesville last month have reminded us, the evil of racism is still with us. To quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

We may want to skip over the painful parts, but like my experience with GWTW, ignoring them gives us a skewed view of history. We cannot fight evil if we refuse to see it. We cannot avoid repeating painful moments in our history if we look away.

(For more information on this period of history,  here is a link to artist Pamela Chatterton Purdy's inspiring Icons of the Civil Rights Movement. She and her husband David have produced two books about the Icons and the people they represent: Icons of the Civil Rights Movement and Civil Rights Icons Past and Present. Pam can be reached at

Friday, August 18, 2017

"Don't Forget to be a Good Boy"

Today, August 18, was the day in 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. It all came down to one vote in the Tennessee legislature. 

Harry Burn, a 24 year old Republican, who had stated his intention to vote against it, changed his mind after receiving a letter from his mother, encouraging him to vote for it. 

“Don’t forget to be a good boy…” she reminded him. He voted for the amendment, thus breaking the tie, and leading to the final ratification. 

When, after his vote, he was subjected to attacks on his honor and integrity, he simply stated, “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification."

Here are a few lessons I draw from this story:
  • It’s usually a good idea to listen to your mother.
  • Even one vote can change history.
  • Standing alone is not easy, but can be very powerful.
  • Doing the right thing, being a good boy (or girl) in the face of strong opposition is hard. It takes what 12-step folks describe as a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
  • Doing the right thing almost always draws condemnation from the forces on the other side.
  • This all happened within the living memory of people still alive today. It is not ancient history. Many of the ideas and attitudes of the men who opposed ratification are still with us today. Remember that the Equal Rights Amendment that promised all the rights guaranteed under the Constitution were granted to women as well as men, which was proposed just three years after ratification of the 19th Amendment, did not pass Congress until 1972, and never became a part of the Constitution because it only passed in 35 of the 38 state legislatures that were required.
  • This is not over. Before the last election the hashtag #repealthe19th began to appear.
  • The rights that Thomas Jefferson saw as "self-evident," that are enshrined in the "Declaration of Independence," are not evident to everyone.
  • Harry Burn died in 1977. He was to witness 15 national elections where women were able to vote, but he never saw the security of their rights established into the Constitution. For that we are all waiting.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Toast to Rolled Up Sleeves

This is my favorite picture of my mother and father. It was taken on Thanksgiving 1950. My cousin Alvin took this picture as well as another of my grandparents on that day. My grandparents sit in front of the picture window of our house on Lancaster Street--very formal, half smiling .  I realize now that my grandmother would die just three months later, so possibly she wasn't feeling well.

The photograph of my parents, on the other hand, shows them smiling brightly with my mother sitting on my father's lap. The picture clearly expresses the closeness and deep love they had for each other, as well as a spirit of playfulness.

It wasn't until many years later that I noticed something else about the picture. My father is dressed formally, wearing a necktie, but the sleeves of his shirt are rolled up. 

Perhaps I didn't notice it before because it seemed quite normal to me. My father's sleeves seemed always to be rolled up. He was always in the middle or working on something. Here I imagine he was helping my mother get the dinner on the table.

My father, unlike many other men in that  era, did not draw a distinct line between women's work and men's work. If there was work that needed doing, he was there. I have joked in the past that there is a hard working gene in the Schneeloch line that seems to have skipped over me. My grandfather used to say, "A change of occupation is as good as a vacation," and that attitude seems to be true for my father and brother as well.

My father did not draw lines for leisure time activities either. He equally enjoyed woodworking and needlepoint, furniture repair and novel reading. I used to have a hard time buying Father’s Day cards because they featured images of fishing and hunting—neither of which he was interested in. I don’t think my Uncle Keith, who thoroughly enjoyed those activities, ever really appreciated my father’s alternative interests.

Growing up as his daughter, I developed a rather idealized view of what a husband and father should be. All of which may explain why I have never married. Fortunately, though, because he didn’t see such distinctions , he taught me how to use the tools on his tool bench, how to balance my checkbook, how to drive, how to hang wallpaper, how to change a tire, how to use a plunger, how to repair a light fixture, and many other things that have saved me from having to call a professional for the slightest problem. 

So I raise my glass to all men who roll up their sleeves, pitch in whenever needed, and raise daughters and sons who do the same.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Reflections as I Move Closer to the Front of the Line

On one's birthday, I think it's appropriate to  consider not only where one has been but where one is going. To that end, as I turn 72 today, I share here a piece I recently wrote on that topic.

I went to a funeral today for a woman who was 105. She was born in 1911, the same year as my father. She was a beautiful soul whose warm smile lives on in memory.  It seems I’ve been to so many funerals lately. The connection between that fact and my upcoming birthday is not lost on me. 

Also I just finished Mark Doty’s book Dog Years, where I grieved vicariously the passing of his two beloved dogs: Beau and Arden. Throughout the book he refers to Emily Dickinson who also wrote a lot about death. Although all these passings make me sad, they do not depress me.

Old Ben Franklin was certainly right about the unavoidability of death, maybe taxes too, but then he hadn’t met our current president. My own feelings about death have changed a lot over the years, and I expect they will continue to do so as I, in the words of my dear old friend Mrs. Sullivan, move closer to the front of the line.

The first death of anyone close to me was that of my grandmother when I was four. I didn’t really understand the concept. I do remember my parents took me to the funeral parlor to see her. The last time I had seen her she was sick and had all sorts of tubes and machines around her. My parents wanted me to see that she was at peace. I saw that, but what it all meant remained a mystery. Sixty-eight years later it’s still a mystery, just a deeper one.

When my grandfather died when I was eight, I was aware of what it meant, and I was very sad to lose this man who had been such a gentle, caring presence in my life. I think at the time I was comforted by the idea that he and my grandmother were in heaven, whatever that concept meant to me at the time.

I don’t think I ever had a concrete image of heaven, not like Catholic friends I met in college who explained that they had been taught that heaven was like a football field where good Catholics got to sit on the 50-yard line. Protestants, it was assumed, were high up in the bleachers. Hell was a concept I never thought about or believed.

The older I get, the more and more it all resolves into mystery. What I do know is that at two times when I have been very close to someone on the verge of dying, I was filled with a sense of awe at the wonder of it all—life, death, time, all of it. I remember being with my friend Jack just hours before he died, then just after he had passed, and I wondered aloud, where is he? The body was still there, but his essence was gone. Where had his humor, his sarcasm, his love for Betty Grable, his anger, his passion for social justice, where had it all gone?

The Celts talk about thin places where the shade between this world and the next is so sheer we might almost see through, but not quite. That’s how I felt later that year when visiting a church member who also was near death. It was Christmas time, and we had come to carol to her, and as weak as she was, she mouthed the words to “Silent Night” along with us. Such a thin, fragile moment. I can’t say I saw God then, but I felt something beyond this earthly reality.

We went to visit the sick ones
to bring them a bit of Christmas.
Jenny was our final stop

we sang familiar songs of Christmas
of birth and life and expectation.

She lay on her bed, barely moving,
oxygen being pumped into her nostrils
her eyes tiny slits.

It seemed the ultimate irony
to celebrate the messiah's arrival
as she was preparing to die.

yet we sang of the shepherds'
call to not be afraid
on that oh so silent night

and softly from the bed
came a frail voice mouthing
sleep in heavenly peace.
sleep in heavenly peace.

As far as my own death is concerned, I am not anticipating it, but I hope when the time comes, my body will be recycled into the garden, and as for the rest of me, I’m content to let that remain part of the mystery.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Missing an Old Friend

I have always admired intelligent women who speak their minds, who care less about the opinions of others than speaking the truth. We could use more of them today. Vera was one of those women. Her job title was school secretary, but she served more as an unpaid therapist as teachers, students, custodians, administrators, and visitors stopped by her office and stayed to chat, laugh, and hear her wisdom.

Vera was closer to my mother’s age than mine, but despite that, we became friends, and in 1978 she joined my friend Beverly and me on a Mediterranean cruise. Vera had turned 33 in 1945, the year Beverly and I were born. Certainly Beverly and I knew about the war, but for Vera it was something she had lived through and still felt strongly about. Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were more than names for her. They aroused painful memories.

But we weren’t thinking about the war when we arrived in Mallorca. We planned to enjoy the beaches, the art, the shopping, and the history—but through a lens of years.

Spain, as you may know, observes the custom of siesta—a two-hour break from business in the middle of the day. This was something we never seemed to figure out. We would arrive at the shops just as they were closing down, so we would find a sidewalk cafĂ©, sip a few gin and tonics, and enjoy some gazpacho. 

One afternoon some American sailors stopped to chat and were immediately charmed by Vera. They too were impressed with her wit and her openness in expressing her opinions.

We had witnessed that earlier when we were on our tour bus waiting for the guide to get tickets. Some vendors came on the bus selling souvenir coins. All we could see from our seat was that they were about the size of a quarter and gold colored. By the time the men had walked down the aisle toward us, it became clear that the face on the coin was that of Mussolini.

At this point Vera rose from her seat and started yelling at the man, “How dare you bring those in here? You might as well sell coins of Hitler.” She raised such a fuss that they quickly fled back to the streets of Palma.

Our conversation with the sailors was not so heated. They told us about their ship and where they had been. Always a sucker for the poetic, I was moved by one young man’s talk of the sea as his mistress.

After we said goodbye to the sailors, we began walking through the alleys and streets of Palma back to our hotel, Vera soon decided she had to find a bathroom. (all those g&t’s, you know) We were not familiar with the city, didn’t see any public facilities, and, it was still siesta so no one was around, and the hotel was still a long way off.

Finally walking across a plaza, she said, “Here, I have to go here,” and she lifted up her skirt and watered the pavement profusely.

It was not until she finished that we saw the brass plaque in the pavement, now visible in the yellow puddle. It was a memorial to Franco.

“There,” she said, “I’ve always wanted to do that to you.”

Oh, Vera, if only you were here today!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Bird Amusements

The birds are my morning amusement, much more entertaining--and less stressful--than the newspaper. I usually fill up the bird feeders before I eat my breakfast. I go to the bin full of shelled sunflower seeds, fill up an old juice bottle, then grab the bag of peanuts, climb carefully down the steps (a stumble awhile back left me uninjured but embarrassed), and fill both the sunflower and the peanut feeders. But today I discerned there was enough left in the feeders so that I could wait until after my coffee.

The sunflower seed feeder is much larger and attracts a wide variety of birds--sparrows, finches, nuthatches, titmice, and the mourning doves who catch what's spilled on the ground. The peanut feeder has fewer but very particular fans--the woodpeckers, the wrens, and the starlings---LOTS of starlings. 


The starlings can clean out the whole feeder in a day, so I try to keep it full for the little guys, especially the wrens who are much better behaved. They are so cute with their upturned tails. They poke their beaks inside, take one peanut, and fly off, as opposed to the starlings who swarm in, knock each other out of the way, and grab as much as they can. 

Carolina Wren
This morning the remaining peanuts were stuck halfway between one hole and another. One Carolina wren arrived, tried one hole, then another, then another, all to no avail. Another arrived with a seed in his beak, fed it to the first wren, who then flew off. The second wren tried each hole, but after having no success, he stuck his head almost all the way in and retrieved a stuck peanut. You see what I mean, a kind and resourceful guy.

Hairy Woodpecker
House Sparrow

Soon after that, a hairy woodpecker arrived, saw that there were peanuts, tried a couple of holes, then began to peck at the container, thereby unsticking the peanuts, reached in and retrieved his breakfast.

Then a house sparrow arrived carrying a piece of grass in his beak, headed for nest-building, I assume, but when he reached in for the peanut, he dropped the grass. 

The next sparrow grabbed a peanut, but then dropped it. A cardinal sitting in the hydrangea immediately flew down and ate the dropped food.

American Robin

All while this was happening, a couple of robins were mining the yard for worms.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Cavity

The Cavity

It was there at the base of my father’s right thumb. It seemed normal to me, as if this was how a father’s hand looked, a contrast to the mound on his left hand. I never questioned it. Why should I? His hands worked equally well at building a swing set for me or tapping his Chesterfield on the steering wheel while driving me to piano lessons or Sunday school.

I’m not sure when I learned that he had contracted polio as a young man. Maybe it was after we were asked to put our dimes into the tiny iron lung for the annual March of Dimes appeal. Maybe after hearing the stories of children who could breathe only when sealed into what looked a giant tin can I began to ask questions.

Whenever it was, I learned not only my father’s history, but how just the word “polio” produced fear and even panic. This was before Salk and Sabin and their miracle vaccines. The disease was something that could catch you if you were in the wrong place, like a swimming pool on a warm summer afternoon. It was something that could kill.

Yet, I knew my father had survived. The story of how he survived, with this cavity the only evidence, was one I would learn later from my mother. My father never talked about it.

An only child, he followed his cousin Harry’s path, attended the High School of Commerce, and went to work in the business world, eventually working for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. It occurs to me as I write this that I never asked exactly what he did there—just another one of those questions I wish I had asked, but now cannot.

At 25 he was tall, handsome, friendly, and hard working. He had a girlfriend whom everyone assumed he was going to marry. Life was good. Then came the weakness in his arm and stomach and the eventual diagnosis of polio.

His world began to change. He no longer drove his tiny Austin to work. After a few visits, his girlfriend stopped coming. His world became confined to the small house on Allen Street—the house and the yard. For it was in the “summer house”—an open wooden structure in the yard beyond the garden—that his father would take him every day and work his muscles hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

And on the day he was finally able to move his arm one inch away from the side of his body, they knew he could and would recover.

All this happened, of course, before I was born. Indeed, it was before my parents met. All this history was held in the cavity of his right hand.