Wisdom of the Dead

skeletonOctober has been frightening this year. Not because of skeletons guarding doorways, ghosts in the trees, or dismembered body parts sticking out of yards. What’s frightening are the toxic fumes rising from the  cauldron of our election stew.

What would our predecessors think about how we are treating each other, the vitriol and baseness in these election-based exchanges in this civilized twenty-first century? I see banks of the dead, watching, pale and silent. Some I know–my parents are standing in the front–and many I don’t.

This audience of the dead is in agreement. While we the living are so not. They can’t sweat small stuff anymore, or even big stuff. They now understand division better than any of us, divided from earthly companionship, love, and joy.  Yes, They are divided from anger, pain and heartbreak, too, but what they no doubt remember most is harmony, synchronicity, and consideration.

Because if there is a heaven on earth, that’s where it lies.

I wish these dead could speak to us. In their later years, my parents heard the siren call of “the system is rigged.”  They felt that those in power, the “new world order,” were power hungry and evil, out to ruin the rest of us. With the distance of years, I see my parents having this reaction to counter an overwhelming loss of control, of their lives and their bodies. That we are in control is an illusion in the first place, I think, but as we get older, the veil between this illusion and reality gets much thinner. Reality can be hard.

“The system is rigged” resonates as a reaction to humans feeling “I can’t get what I want.” None of us  get exactly what we want, even though we may work diligently toward a particular goal for years. The system is designed that humans will always have challenges, surprises, and shocks; if we are not growing, we are dying. No wonder people build up resistance, fear, and anger to a Sisyphusian nature of existence, rolling a boulder uphill only to see it roll down again. When too much seems out of control, we want someone to blame. Must be the people in charge which means–hey, it’s the  government.

Is this the grown-up version of blaming your parents for your problems? Blame the government, or the wealthy employers, or really both, since they are the “system.” And when our culture broadcasts this on a large scale, what is the effect on the upcoming generations? The system is rigged! Why work or try to get ahead? Overthrow the current system!

The dead groan in unison. Has history not yet convinced us as a species that democracy, for all its difficulties, is one of the better systems there is? Perhaps the best? No, revolution is not the answer. Unless that revolution means taking responsibility, all of us, for the divisive poisonous stew we are swimming in. Human existence, and politics, is a see-saw, a balancing scale; sometimes events tip in favor of you and your beliefs, sometimes the tip is in my favor. What our elders, and those who have gone before would tell us on Halloween, when the veil between the dead and the living is at it’s thinnest of the year, is this: “Grow up. Stop throwing tantrums and trying to get your way. No one consistently gets their way, ever. The human system is rigged to make sure of that. Start sharing toys and figuring out how to play nice.”

Shame on us for acting so selfishly and childishly. That’s what the dead would say. But they can’t talk anymore. They only listen. What wisdom they could offer from the other side of the divide. Divisiveness is hell, they’d say, but hearing each other while you still can, then leaning in toward harmony, not discord, is the closest thing to heaven–on earth.


Back in the USA

No sooner had Kim, the 18 year old Chinese kid who lives with me, landed in China, where he went for school vacation to visit his parents, when he texted me that he needed help. Literally he texted, “I need your help”. I have received these SOS texts from Kim before and I am always apprehensive about what might follow. Once, he left his soccer shoes at home and he had a game that day. Another time he was having trouble with his eyes and thought he should go to a doctor. So, what was it that he needed my help with this time?

When I texted back inquiring as to the problem, I received the following, “I left my Immigration paper”. Well, this sounded serious but something I know nothing about. He went on to ask me to look in his backpack for some official Immigration paper (it wasn’t there!) and then the top of his desk (I found an F-1 paper and texted Kim a picture of it so I could be sure it was the right form). Yes, I had indeed found the right papers! Step one complete.

He then asked me to send them to Xi’an in western China, his hometown, by 2 day mail. Ok, sounded like an easy plan. When asked for his home address he texted three lines of Chinese. Whoa! I don’t read, write nor can I copy Chinese. But, I knew people who could…

So, after school I drove over and picked up JZ (American name), the Chinese boy that lives with my friends, so he could accompany me to the Mail Store and write the address on the letter to go to Kim. Unfortunately, the Mail Store told me that there was no 2 day delivery to Xi’an; it would take 9 days. Now I got nervous. Kim was due home in 12 days and with the time change, etc. I didn’t know if the papers would get to him in time. I decided not to chance these very important original immigration papers to the Chinese mail system.

Now what? I asked my Chinese friends if Kim could use a copy of the papers to get back in the USA and they all said absolutely not. But, Jill’s (American name) husband was returning to Shanghai around the time Kim would be changing planes in Shanghai and he would be glad to rendezvous with Kim to hand him his papers. Sounded feasible. But, when asked, Kim told me that he was not going through Shanghai as he had when going to China; he was changing planes in Beijing. So, thanks but no thanks to Jill’s husband.

In the meantime, I emailed a copy of the F-1 to Kim in case there was any way he could use a copy to get through customs even though all signs pointed to no.

And, then, it struck me that the best solution was to head to the airport just prior to Kim’s arrival and beg someone to take the papers to Customs so that they would be there when Kim passed through. On the day of Kim’s arrival into Boston I drove to Logan Airport, International Terminal, Hanian Airlines and walked right up to an employee behind the ticket desk. I explained the situation and Harry (American name) told me that he would take the papers to the plane and hand them to Kim. No begging required. When the plane landed I texted Kim to look out for Harry.

Harry did go on the plane and handed the Immigration papers to Kim. Kim sailed through Customs and he was back in the USA! And people think immigration is easy!!!


The Arrival

Kim Sun arrived at my house in late September – a few weeks after school started. I had agreed to host a Chinese boy for the school year after my wonderful experience hosting two Chinese boys for a month over the summer. All I knew about Kim was that he was 18 years old, came from a city in western China near Tibet and would be attending the Waldorf High School in Belmont and that his agent described him as “pure” whatever that means.

In hindsight Kim’s arrival was portentous. The day before he was supposed to be at my house I texted Kim’s agent, Ying, (actually Wechatted his agent – more on Wechat and the agent in later posts) to find out what time I could expect Kim so I would be home to welcome him. Ying texted back that Kim would not be arriving the next day as his Visa was being held up. She was sure it would be worked out in the next few days because it was just a matter of paying another fee which Kim’s family didn’t know about. Ying said that she would get back to me as to the actual arrival day and time which would probably be in a week.

A week went by and then I received a surprising text from Ying. Kim’s mother was coming with him to America. My first thought was, “Oh my God! I hope they don’t think the mother is staying in my house! Not only don’t I have an extra bedroom for her, but I really don’t have the time or inclination to spend that kind of energy dealing with Mother Sun especially with so little notice!”

When questioned for more details, Ying assured me that Kim and his mother would be staying in a hotel. He would start school right away traveling back and forth between Belmont and the hotel in Cambridge. She would let me know when Kim would be moving into my house.

After about 10 days I heard from Ying that Kim and his mother would like her to bring them to my house the next afternoon so they could meet me, see his room and bring his clothes over. I agreed and made sure I had cake and juice to serve them because I thought that I was certainly expected to serve food and drink as they would in China.

We had a very pleasant meeting. Kim seems to be a lovely boy – fairly tall and slim with a wide face and glasses. His mother was a pretty little thing – fully made up and dressed in a navy blue skirt,a sparkly white sweater and heels. It was the first time I had met Ying who turned out to be a realtor like myself; very chatty and very nice. She translated the conversation between the mother and I while Kim sat quietly.

My Llasa Apso, Ricky, joined us in the living room which seemed to tickle Kim but not his mother who wanted nothing to do with Ricky as she was afraid of dogs. Ying went over some school and insurance forms with Mrs. Sun and they handed all the papers to Kim so he could take them to school the next day. Kim promptly forgot them and I found them in the living room after they left.

After we ate our snack, Mrs. Sun and Kim went upstairs to his room to unpack his suitcase. I was so impressed that Kim’s mother came with him all the way from China to get him settled. It certainly showed a deep affection for her only child and I was pleased to be dealing with such a nice family.

Mrs. Sun handed me a gift before she left – a lovely gold scarf.

Of course, I attempted to pin down the day Kim would actually move into my house. Ying told me that first Kim was going on a 3 day field trip with the school to a camp in New Hampshire and would come to me the day he arrived home from this excursion. Finally I had the date for Kim to move into my house – 3 weeks after I had originally been told.

But, now that Kim has lived with me for 4 months, I realize that is par for the course in hosting a Chinese child – some things you are told, other things you are not told, some things are lost in translation, some things are Cultural differences and the rest is a mystery.



Tipping the Balance to Radical Security

When I wanted to close out 2015 with visions of sugar plums in my head, I found images of radical terrorism. Not comfort and joy. Fear and violence.
A world in frightening imbalance.
My maternal line is full of scientists. I love magic, but I am fascinated by science. Science is magic. The natural world is embedded with options for balancing. Too acidic. Add any number of substances to create an alkalinity. Dehydrated? Add water. Too cold? Flint and steel plus force equals fire and warmth.
Radical terrorism evolves in individuals who feel disenfranchised. A person who feels deprived of power, rights, and privileges. A person who feels unconnected and unimportant.
How do we counter balance radical terrorism in 2016?
How about radical security? I’m not referring to more guns and walls, video monitoring and prohibitions. That path appears to be a slippery slope that at any moment can increase our terror, not abet it. As children, we feel secure when there is consistence structure in our lives and someone who is present and caring. As adults, we are not so different. Perhaps there is much we can do to counter balance radical terrorism.
Start by rerooting ourselves, reviving ourselves, reminding ourselves, by experiencing our literal scientific earth. The structure of our natural world is consistent. There is order. The blooming of a flower, the freezing of a puddle, the changing of the seasons, a bee hive, the mating of animals in heat, the hatching of an egg. We ground ourselves in consistencies, sureties. At the heart of it all, Earth is steady.
Then we can start connecting to each other, by being there and caring. Radically. Not extremely. Extreme action is rarely sustainable over time. And people are likely to think us unhinged. Radical defined as anything that is personally radical. Moving beyond what we’ve been doing to date. Each of us will have our own radical, and it’s time to go there. Set a date and start radical security actions.
Forgive your sibling, parent, child for whatever has kept you from talking; your work colleague for stealing that lead, that idea, that spotlight; your partner for not being everything you fantasized in a partner; yourself for being less than. Speak kind words that pop up inside, telling your partner “I love you”; acknowledging a rival at work for a job well done; telling yourself you’re okay. Contribute something positive to your community by reaching out to that neighbor from another country, volunteering for a town or school committee and listening to other viewpoints, teaching your children about the beauty of other cultures, supporting the inclusionary activities of your human resource department at work, running for political office.
We each have the power to start tipping the balance. Great change always comes from a simple small change that expands and expands and expands…


Salvaging Our Future: True Resource Management

I don’t like seeing anything go to waste. Not anything. Does this stem from the stories many of us heard as kids as we sat stuck at the dinner table until we cleaned our plate because “children are starving in Africa”? Or is it wise management? Or perhaps guilt and wisdom combined. Children starving in Africa created an early awareness that resources are not infinite for everyone. Now, several years later, we’re aware that infinite resources are no longer a given for anyone anywhere.

I reuse, recycle, and recreate everywhere I can, and get great satisfaction from such efficiency. I do believe, however, that many of the young adults stepping in to take over the running of the world find this tendency quaint, old-fashioned, or just plain annoying. They are aware of basic environmental stuff, saving trees and recycling containers, but do they get that resource management just starts there?

My nephew was recently hired to film a documentary about a man who salvaged scraps from restaurants to create good meals. His mother observed, “I do this almost every night, and no one is making a documentary about me!” I do, too, and–no film crews. According to my sister-in-law, this is a hot topic, with recent articles in The Wall Street Journal about top chefs holding competitions to make meals from scraps and in the The Washington Post about using scraps, along with less than perfect agricultural specimens in support of the farmer. I love these ideas, but do the perhaps 20-something and 30-something writers and editors now in charge really see using leftovers to create another meal as a breaking new trend? Generations coming up behind me so totally immersed in having their meals, and beverages, prepared by someone else, at Chipotle or Starbucks or wherever, only to throw out the leftovers, and buy a new meal next time hunger strikes that they can’t fathom this type of efficiency and creativity? Say it isn’t so! I made a conscious decision not to follow the path of my parents’ generation, not to color my family’s dining times with bleak pictures of children starving in Africa. But now I’m thinking, maybe we all should have bleakened a meal or two by bringing the focus back to the starving children in Africa, or India or China, for that matter.

When my husband and I began to search for a home around Pittsburgh as newly-weds, we drove along the old highways south of the city past mile after mile of buildings, bricks and steel, crumbling and going to seed because there was land available in newer areas that could be developed in a flashier more contemporary way. We did not move anywhere near these wrecks, but the waste of all the resources to develop these now crumbling and abandoned structures was disheartening. The sadness pervaded the very air in these towns, and stayed with me…while I stayed far away.

We bought a house, a new one in a newly-developed area, and soon I was not driving around crumbling towns or spanking new ones; I was parenting my young son at home in my new neighborhood. As I joined with other formerly working mothers in my neighborhood for play dates with our toddlers, I began envisioning a new type of employment service, an exercise that intensified when I moved to a Boston suburb with a now school-aged son. My neighborhoods were busting with mothers professional in so many areas. Lots of work experience, multiple undergraduate degrees, masters and doctorates we were, filling up that sippy cup, or driving the carpool. We wanted to be hands-on Moms, but many of us would have also loved the mental challenge, and value, of working…not to mention the income. I dreamed of an employment service that matched parenting moms with corporations who valued their abilities and wanted them as flex-time employees or consultants.

But the problem wasn’t just lack of an infrastructure to bring the two camps together. There was no serious pervasive interest in or value placed on all this talent languishing away around the swing sets. If you had a contact from when you were working full time, you were good. Otherwise, forget it. I discovered that anything I had done or written more than 24 months ago (and the fact that it had been in different states didn’t help) didn’t matter. What had I done in the last two years? That was the only truly important fact. Really? So rather than valuing my years as a writer amassing experience, and clips, once I’m home with my child not writing every week for money for a few months, I have also forgotten everything I ever knew and lost every ability I ever had? How does this make sense?

Now someone like me is apparently an even bigger buzz kill for potential employers: I’m over fifty. I’ve got more to contribute to any organization than I did in my twenties or thirties, as do my female, and male, colleagues. Do we bring different qualities than younger counterparts? Or course we do. That’s the point. We may not be as speedy. We may not want to multi-task because we know better. We may not be as technologically savvy. But we may very well be more organized. More skilled. More able to identify a problem with more experience in solving it. More stable. More dependable. More “we” then “me”.

And how about more joyful? Some of us can work now because we want to, not because we’re worried about paying our bills or because we have to prove ourselves, but because we like what we do, we’re good at it, and we want to contribute. Lowered stress frees up a lot of energy to fire synapses. When I hear repeatedly about ageism in the workplace, employees being phased out because they are in their fifties—oh, horrors—the creative efficient resource manager in me wants to tear my hair out, again. More waste. More horrible, and unnecessary, waste.

Our best way to navigate forward, for the environment, for the economy, for our humanity, is as a multi-aged, multi-experienced team. Holistic management of all our resources, animal, vegetable, mineral? Now that’s a trend to follow…



Meditation on Laundry

This was going to be called, “Mountain of Laundry”. We just returned from a short, active family vacation, and there it is – a mountain of laundry. Sort of along the idea of Sisyphus rolling his rock to the top of the mountain, just to have it roll down, over and over again. Then, I thought, perhaps an adjustment in attitude was required.  I should follow the yoga way of being in the moment; turn the all-too-familiar activity into a “meditation in motion”. For a somewhat mundane task, like shopping, tidying or putting dinner on the table, there is a kind of value to the work. Just because it’s domestic doesn’t mean it’s not important, especially in terms of having a comfortable family life. I suspect that our relationship to laundry reveals a lot about who we are. So, here goes…

I don’t actually hate laundry, and prefer it to some of the other chores.  I had thought, naively, that laundry would be a thing of the past, a la, “The Jetsons”, somehow programmed and automated. Not so. In fact, laundry has changed little since my youth, and I wonder if it has to do with being, still, “women’s work”. That is to say, “If they can send a man to the moon….” Same basic washer/dryer pair (sturdy, low-tech Sears Kenmore); same woven plastic laundry baskets; pretty much same detergent, Tide or Arm and Hammer; and same process: out of hampers, sorting into “whites” and “coloreds”!!! A couple turns of the dial and off it goes. Then, the reverse sorting; the folding, generally on our big bed; the leaving out to be put away. (Although my sons learn to do their own before leaving for college) I think that’s pretty much exactly what I remember my Memere doing, back in the day.

But not exactly. When I lived with my aunt in CT, I remember a neighbor who had the old-fashioned wringer machine – rather nightmarish. Everyone we knew had a clothes line, and used it. Now, only for wet towels after the beach. And racks, for those sweaters gently cleaned with Woolite. There used to be “delicates” – lingerie, nylons, and my grandmother’s corset, that were washed separately in their own little bag. And, ironing – so quaint. We had special clothes for church, which had to be ironed, wrinkle-free. Fortunately, not the hats and gloves, though.

As a large family, we always had a lot of laundry, but not so many clothes. Being close in age and size, sisters shared and brothers shared. Never my own pair of underwear, and all of us fished our socks from a communal drawer. There was an interesting period where the washer and/or dryer expired from so much use, refusing to be resuscitated. My mother at that time was not able to put together enough money for a new washer and/or dryer, so it became a matter of trips to the Laundromat with rolls of quarters, a couple times a week, with, I believe, up to ten loads. Now, that was an outing.

I myself had many years without washer or dryer, living apartment-style in NYC and in other places. Plenty of hours in the Laundromat, waiting/watching, with never a romance springing up. And then, one day, in Brooklyn, I found a laundry run by a Chinese family, who would wash and fold my dirty clothes, very cheaply, very well and with a smile. I was so grateful, I wrote them into a chapter of my book, Spanish Soap Operas.

My “load” today is not so heavy, really. The boys help, certainly. The machines do what they’re supposed to very dependably. In lieu of “delicates”, I learned from a wise friend, Noriko, to rescue my bright, better-made garments from the dryer (the destroyer of all fabrics), and let them air dry in the bathroom. The routine is familiar and fairly relaxing. The only surprise is the occasional unfamiliar garment that shows up, neat, clean and washed, but belonging to someone other than us. We have a lot of company, and they leave all kinds of things behind.

And so, my meditation ends, although the laundry remains. In all, I’m grateful for the convenience, and the physical ability to do the task, the clean clothes, and the nice smell. I do it, willingly, but if that nice Chinese family were to open their little store here in Bedford, would I be glad to see them.


Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s a time of change for our sons, graduating high school and college, and a change for us as well.  Increasingly, I hear the refrain from friends, “Are you going to stay in town?  Or, where are you thinking of moving to?”  As my husband says, he realizes that shortly we can move just about anywhere, now that we are through with the school system. But, where else is better than here?

I have a friend who is quite clear in her plans: part of the time in France (with her French speaking husband), and a “pied a terre” in some great city, i.e. New York, Boston or Philadelphia.  Other friends have bounced around ideas, like, for instance, “further south”, but without specific destinations in mind.  Or, the idea of being a “snow bird” is a reality for quite a few older folks that we know, part time here in the north, part time in the south. For a few giddy moments, I dreamed of Costa Rica – where many American expats live. A truly beautiful country with a warm, temperate climate, and a fairly stable political and social climate.  And a little English. I’m quite taken with the idea learning Spanish, a second language later in life. But my husband, not so much so. In fact, he’s still recovering from the trauma of high school Spanish.

 Certain facts anchor us to this area, for at least a while longer. First that my husband is not likely to retire too early from his profession(s), lawyer and accountant – going by the history of his parents and relatives, who worked until ripe old age.  And that means staying with his clients, to some extent. Yes, some work can be done remotely – say at the Cape, 1 ½ hours away. But not everything, and not too far away. The other is my husband’s mother, now 87, who lives in town with us, still independent, with us as her chief support system.  Her health and friends networks are here, and she would not be happy to uproot to an entirely new place. And we would want to continue our close relationship as long as it goes – which could be quite a bit longer, going by family history.

 And then, the financial equation:  not a larger house; not a more expensive house; perhaps a smaller house closer to the more expensive city (net equal).  Or, what many around us have done, a smaller place in a less expensive area (southern New Hampshire, farther out in the burbs) to create a little nest egg, but essentially be more inconvenient to all the things we value: church; theater and culture; good restaurants, etc.  We did at one time consider moving home base to the Cape – where we have a vacation home. Still a possibility, but not sure of the tradeoffs.

 Maybe we’ll wait it out until after my husband’s mother has passed and see where our boys end up.  Always a possibility, especially, if that might make life easier for them, regarding us.  But maybe not. And someplace completely new to get used to.  And missing the things about New England I find that I truly love and value, including perhaps, the diversity and more liberal outlook. 

 Still, after this past long winter, I finally admitted to myself – I will need a respite from this. Not just the physical effort of dealing with lots of snow and ice. But the cold, especially in my bones.  I could give up some of my daily walks in exchange for Zumba and other aerobic exercise, but I missed terribly the fresh air in my lungs.  And my constant cold hands and cold feet were debilitating at times.

 So, what then?  I guess as yet, it remains to be seen. But I can definitely see a getaway of some kind in the coldest part of the year where I can walk outside without all the layers, just sneakers on my feet and a sunhat on my head.


The Breadwinner Wears a Bra (or Maybe She Doesn't)

When I was growing up, we didn’t know of many other families where the mother was the head of household and chief breadwinner. I can only think of one, and that was a friend, her mother and grandmother who lived together, but whose main source of income was alimony from the dad.  My mother did not choose this role; it came to her after Dad died, leaving her in charge. There was some life insurance money, but that didn’t go too far in raising six young children. In addition, our household included our grandmother, Memere, main cook and child-care provider, and my Uncle Dick, who worked at a vending machine factory and helped to support Memere. He was a couple years older than my mom, and did all the yardwork, snow removal, and transportation needs, as well as recreation guide but he was not the main decision maker in our house.

Mom, on her salary as a nurse, bought and sold two houses and a condo; many cars over the years (chiefly station wagons); paid for groceries, clothing, and all the various lessons we children undertook. She was, of course, the banker and bill payer for the family.  Pretty much all expenses, expected and unexpected, were paid for by her. On her retirement from nursing, after forty years, she told us a story I’d never heard before – that her father was reluctant to pay for her nursing school education, because “she would only get married, have children and quit”, which was true, initially. Poppy died before he saw his daughter resume her career.  I didn’t know until quite a bit later that the salary my mother made upon retirement (about $40, 000 in the early 1990’s) was the highest of any of my friend’s mothers, or pretty much any other woman I knew.

 Now, that situation has changed, dramatically. The women’s movement may have not achieved equity in all areas, but there are more women in the work place than ever, and more in charge of their financial lives at home.  Some are widows, mostly older. Of these, a fair number were not prepared for running a household on their own, and struggle with practical and financial matters. Many women are divorced, now heads of their own households. If they do get alimony and child support, they are still working jobs to cover expenses.  And a surprising number of my generation, and following, are chief breadwinners, even if their spouse is living at home, who may or may not do childcare for the family.  Most of these families, with the woman bringing home the main income, don’t live too high on the hog, and many of the women still do a lot of the household management as well.

 The upshot of all this is still playing out. I can’t help but think it’s a good thing for girls to understand all the business end of running a household, at least being capable of taking charge if needed. A question arises, did the couples of divorce split in part because the woman felt she could go it on her own, in a situation she might otherwise have stayed in in another generation?  Ever so slowly, it seems, some of the political and business leadership is changing over to women, who are clearly capable.  But I can’t help but think back to my mom’s situation, and how exhausting it was, the neverending responsibility, and I’m grateful I don’t have to contend with that as she did. I do wonder, too, if the women who are “on duty”, in charge, responsible, may have lost some of the energy needed, the “green place” of retreat, that artists need to create. That is, they have so much more direct experience in their lives, but perhaps less chance to reflect upon it and share.


Thank You, Aunt Lou (and Uncle Frosty)

Last time I saw my Aunt Lou (Alma Lucille), about two years ago, she had just celebrated 90 in her usual dapper style. The day we visited at the nursing home, she wore some cute little outfit and a snazzy cap, coordinated, no doubt by her daughters, Barbara and Jeannie. She was tiny, yes, and her hearing was not good. But she knew us, my sister and I, and brightened right up. We go way back with Aunt Lou, and that special relationship remains. She’s the one who took care of us as little girls for about six months while our father was sick in Philadelphia and my mother cared for him at home with the three youngest children. It was a sad time for our family, but I look back that that stay at Aunt Lou’s house, the summer especially, with a kind of lightness and even fun.

We were taken to Aunt Lou’s in CT when I had just finished up Kindergarten and Maura, first grade (at the Catholic school). We would be spending the summer with Aunt Lou, my mom’s oldest sister, Uncle Frosty (Forrest Hurd), cousins Bobby and Danny, who were our age, and their beautiful, glamorous older sister Jeannie, around 18, still at home. There had been nine children; one, Betty Lou, died as a baby, and the others had married and moved out.  Even more amazing to us, the eldest, Barbara, was almost as old as our own mother! Maura and I shared one of the vacant rooms, and pretty much had the run of the house with our boy cousins, while Uncle Frosty went to work at the machine factory during the day, and Aunt Lou had one of her part-time jobs (at the airport diner, perhaps?) on some night shifts.

We were in the country-side, very rural compared to our suburban home. Across the street was a blueberry patch, and the backyard gave way to endless woods, with a working farm up the street. We ran pretty wild, that summer, as I recall:  going where we wanted, when we wanted, all over the place. Somehow we got rides on the farm wagon, bumping through the pumpkin field. Every so often, one of the married cousins would invite us for a sleep-over. At Patty and Joey’s, there was a crystal dish of cellophane wrapped caramels on the coffee table and a big horse chestnut tree in front. Next door to Aunt Lou’s house lived Bobby and Danny’s cousins on their dad’s side, more boys our age to explore the woods and play in the tree house with. My sister was the one to catch crickets and grasshoppers in her hands; I was the one to rub noses with one of those other cousins, learning to kiss, Eskimo-style. When I couldn’t sleep one night, I sat up with Uncle Frosty watching Bonanza, as he picked meat off the bones of a pheasant he had shot. There was no “Go back to bed, now. Try to sleep.” He was a taciturn old Vermonter, but he seemed glad of my company.

By fall and the start of school, things were not so carefree. We were not going back to Philadelphia. We had one short visit back home, and after we saw our father, it was clear that things had changed, and we were not going back to our life there.  We started school with our cousins; the days passed. We were fine, but we were waiting. When the news came in Nov. that Dad had passed, we already knew somehow. My mother was moving up to CT, where we would all be reunited. And so that chapter had passed. And I didn’t realize for some time that to live away from home, with relatives, was not a common experience for many children our age.

Only, I didn’t think to say thank you — for taking us in and caring for us.  But thanks, also, for keeping us away from the hardest, darkest days of my father’s cancer death.  It gave us a sense of belonging to a great big family, passed sometimes from hand to hand, wanted and welcomed. And a sense of freedom that I never again felt in my life, nor, I believe, have I been able to share with my own children. Freedom of movement; of time and schedule; freedom to come or go; freedom from judgment for our looks or our smarts; freedom, too, from guilt or expectation.  It was summer, yes. But it was also their gift to us. And I thank you for that, Aunt Lou and Uncle Frosty, and all my Hurd cousins.



Une Femme Propre – A Proper Woman

I was talking to my sister a while ago about the subject of her next talk for Toastmasters, the public speaking program. The suggested topic was “Someone Who Has Greatly Influenced You”. My sister decided on our grandmother who helped raise us, Alma Mary Philomena LaFlamme Maloney, aka “Memere”.  No question, she had a strong presence for such a small and elderly person, when we knew her. To us, she was “the General”, even if she looked a bit like Mrs. Santa Claus. “That’s why we’re sort of old fashioned,” my sister explained, “because of her.” “Not me,” I argued, “I’m a flower child, if anything, liberated and feminist.” But my sister maintained that we had inherited many of my grandmother’s qualities, nonetheless; which, perhaps, in some light, might be seen as old-fashioned or proper. And then one day I came across a term that spelled it out exactly: femme propre – a proper woman. And strangely enough, I might be one.

The term was used in one of Louise Penny’s mysteries which are set in the province of Quebec, and feature a chief detective and his assistant, who are both French Canadian. Part of the charm of the series, besides the rustic settings and colorful characters, is the viewpoint of the French characters toward their English compatriots, known familiarly as “blockheads”, as well as reflections on the Quebecois culture and cuisine. In one of the novels, the detectives are interviewing the elderly mother of a possible suspect, and she is described as a “femme propre”.  Not a lady, exactly, but a self-assured and dignified matron. Her house is modest but clean and well kept. She’s not dressed fashionably, like the francophone ladies of Quebec or Montreal.  She is gracious without being warm, calm and courteous.  Behind those brown eyes is a sharp intelligence that doesn’t miss much.  I recognized her right away – my grandmother!  Both of them actually. 

Neither I nor my sisters are known to swear, even in this day and age.  We are not fans of “potty” talk, or anything very off-color or blue, although not prim or censorious of movies or literature that contain sex or violence. We’re Democrats and socially liberal. I’m not in the least modest, but not likely to dress in a revealing way, even if I had more bosom to display. We expected to work, and never to use “wiles” to get our way. We were raised to be courteous to all, and to give up seats or places to those in greater need.  Our houses may not be showplaces, but the idea is to tidy once a day and to keep the public spaces “pick-up-able”, in case of company.  Like my grandmother, we are careful in personal habits, not likely to eat or drink too much, but not judgmental toward those who have addictions or other harmful behaviors. In a large family, you’re bound to be related to some of those, and so learn to “love the sinner, but not the sin.” Memere adhered to her Catholic faith to the end, but that didn’t keep her from attending the weddings of non-Catholics, or those with children out of wedlock. And, looking back, not all of Memere’s own sisters were proper in the way that she was, some of them more naughty and fun-loving.

What I think Memere gave us was a sense of self, a sense of valuing your own self and your time, in the way that some women are never taught. To not be taken advantage or, to repel those who would demean you, to stand up for yourself and have a backbone. We are the most accommodating of people, but not to be used or disrespected. Not for nothing, after all my lost and wandering years, I never was abused and never raped, and for that I thank God and my Memere.  Not that any woman in any circumstances could be said to invite those things.  I could never be a real “lady”, but possibly, I am a femme propre, as I think my sisters are. And probably, many of my dear friends, too.