Monday, February 19, 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018, Presidents’ Day

Once upon a time there was Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s Birthday on February 22. Growing up in Massachusetts, we only got Washington’s Birthday off from school, but when I started teaching in Connecticut, we also got Lincoln’s Birthday off. These holidays were celebrated on the presidents’ actual birthdays.

I’m not sure when the two were blended into one day and labeled Presidents’ Day, or when the apostrophe disappeared. (Being a stubborn old English teacher, I refuse to give up on the apostrophe, but that’s another story). Somewhere in the past fifty years the holidays were merged and moved to a convenient Monday, and here in Massachusetts, anyway, merged into February vacation.

When I think of Washington’s Birthday when I was young, I think of my grandfather who came to live with us after my grandmother died. He was a quiet, kind, and hardworking man—a warm addition to our home. At my grandparents’ home on Allen Street he had had a large garden. There he planted according to the seasons, never putting in tomato plants before Memorial Day (always May 30 back then) when the chance of frost was over.
Our yard was much smaller, but he made the most of it, planting vegetables that we enjoyed throughout the summer. But what I remember about Washington’s Birthday was that that was the day on which he pruned the golden delicious apple tree. Regardless of New England’s fickle weather, he knew that late winter was the best time to get the trees ready for the new season.

My grandfather died in 1953 before vacation considerations or marketing strategies moved holidays around, also before global warming changed the seasons themselves. Even the gardeners at Washington’s own Mount Vernon recognize that the trees that used to become dormant in December no longer do so.

I wonder what Grandpa would think today of all these changes—the calendar, the climate. Even his garden on Allen Street was split in two when Sumner Avenue was extended. Still the memories don’t change of this quiet, faithful man putting on his boots, picking up the saw, and heading toward the apple tree, getting ready for another fruitful season.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"The soup is getting cold."

“The soup is getting cold.”

Those were the last words Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his final notebook. These notebooks that were full of sketches of military machines, anatomical diagrams, random notes, detailed lists, and puzzling marginalia provided Walter Isaacson with rich source material for his biography of the original Renaissance man.

As with the two previous biographies of his that I have read (Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs) I found this look into the life of a genius engaging and illuminating. Isaacson lays out for the reader both the genius and the humanity of his subjects. At one moment I am overwhelmed by da Vinci’s detailed examination of the muscles used in a smile, and the next I am seeing myself in his list of unfinished projects.

At the conclusion of the book, Isaacson provides a list of lessons he has learned from da Vinci. In this age where an act is only considered worthy if it can be quantified, I think we would do well to follow da Vinci down a few rabbit holes--for as long as the soup stays warm.

  • ·         Be curious.
  • ·         Seek knowledge for its own sake.
  • ·         Retain a childlike sense of wonder.
  • ·         Observe. (Do it in steps, detail by detail)
  • ·         See things unseen.
  • ·         Go down rabbit holes.
  • ·         Get distracted.
  • ·         Respect facts.
  • ·         Procrastinate.
  • ·         Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
  • ·         Think visually.
  • ·         Avoid silos. “He knew that art was science, and science was art.”
  • ·         Let your reach exceed your grasp.
  • ·         Indulge fantasy.
  • ·         Create for yourself, not just your patrons.
  • ·         Collaborate.
  • ·         Make lists and be sure to put odd things on them.
  • ·         Take notes on paper.
  • ·         Be open to mystery.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Yarn Continues...

It was about this time of year when I was a kid that we would start packing up the box of Christmas presents to be sent to Vermont. There were presents for my Aunt Gertrude, Uncle Keith, and all six of their sons: Bill, Norman, John, David, Neil, and Roger. Then closer to Christmas, we would receive a big box of presents from them. Usually there were three presents with my name on them. One from my aunt and uncle, one from the older boys, and one from the younger boys, though I am quite certain that it was my aunt who took care of it all.

Guaranteed to be in one of those boxes would be something my aunt had knit—usually a scarf or mittens. When I consider all the gifts that she knit over the years for nieces and nephews, sons, and eventually daughters-in-law, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, I am impressed. I am sorry to say I don’t have any of those precious gifts now, especially one of the pairs of mittens connected by a braided cord. (I always thought that was a great idea for keeping them together. I lose about one mitten or glove a season now).

My mother also knit for me.  I remember one sweater in particular—a red one on which she
embroidered my initials in blue on the pocket. You can see it in this picture where
evidently the sun was in my eyes. It was she who taught me how to knit, as she taught me so many other things. 

My first attempts at knitting were less than successful. There were scarves that began as five inches wide, wandered to eight inches, and ended up at three. There was a garter-knit sweater that never quite fit together. Eventually I figured out all the yarn-overs and purls and was able to create something that looked like it was supposed to. 
Once I got the hang of it, I enjoyed making things for friends and family, and even a few for myself. I made this sweater when I was in college for a short-lived skiing adventure. Since that time it's been hanging in the front closet.

When my nephews were 8 and 9, I decided to make them each a sweater for Christmas. Though they are twins (2 sets) I didn’t want them to be exactly the same, so I made four sweaters of the same pattern but in different colors.

I found, whether working on these sweaters or a baby blanket for a friend’s baby or a scarf for a relative, I enjoyed creating something for someone else, enjoyed taking the time to think about each of them as I was knitting.  I also thought about my aunt and all that knitting she had done. It must have given her great pleasure as she spent all those hours creating something warm for all her many loved ones.

Most recently I have been knitting winter hats for the mitten tree at church. The hats and mittens on the tree will be given to students at Sumner Avenue School. As I watch the first snow fall of the winter outside my window, I am happy that something I have created will be helping those kids stay warm. I am also happy that I am able to use the leftover yarn from those sweaters I knit my nephews all those years ago. 

The yarn continues...

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.