What Right Do I Have

My father’s job as a railroad fireman and later as an engineer often meant that he couldn’t eat dinner with us. My younger brother and I would forward to evening meals of pancakes doused with butter and warm maple syrup when Dad wasn’t there. But when Dad was home, meat and potatoes needed to be on the table. His long hours as a fireman was a labor intensive job on those old steam engines, loading shovel after shovel of coal into the coal burner that produced the steam that kept the huge black engines going.

Our meals were everyday 1950s fare: scalloped potatoes, ham, canned peas were common. Dad’s rule was that my brother and I clean our plates: “Children are starving in China,” he’d say between mouthfuls of mushy, overcooked peas.

I never did understand the relationship between clean plates and starving kids in China until years later. I learned as the result of my ninth grade English teacher’s assignment to interview a parent, that my father was in Paris during the liberation. He told me in that interview–very briefly–about giving his USO-issued chocolate bars to hollow-eyed children who stood alongside Parisian streets and stared at the soldiers in the US Army trucks who pushed through rubble of what used to be their homes.

Those dinners with the potatoes and ham did not go well with me. I hated the fat on those thick, marbled ham slices. No matter how long I chewed, they stuck in my throat like fibrous hemp.  Again I heard the threat: “Eat that! There are kids starving in China!”

“Then send it to them,” was my belligerent reply.

He slammed his fork down onto his plate. My milk sloshed out of my glass as he jumped up, reached across the table, and slapped me. “Don’t you ever let me hear you say that again!” he bellowed.

***
“Are you sure you want to publish these pieces?” a friend asked over coffee the other day. “Aren’t you worried that family members might resent these stories going public?”

I recalled a writers’ conference I attended a few months ago. Author Patricia Hampl was the keynote speaker to whom I had asked a similar question. Her response struck me as wise and honest: “These are your stories. This is how you remember them,” she said.

The room was filled with writers, all of whom nodded in somber agreement. It wasn’t just me who found comfort–and courage–in her words.

Thoughts on a Mexican Vacation

IMG_0825DAY 1

Cancun Airport can best be described as a place of organized chaos. Tired passengers queue in long lines the ultimate goal of which is to pass through the security checkpoints and on to the various transportation methods that would take them to resorts, time shares, or hotels.

I overhear a fellow objecting to the “no cell phone” signs. He is stunned when I tell him that like the Minneapolis airport, Security would confiscate his phone if he uses it before he clears the area.

Once past Mexican Customs, one runs a gauntlet of time share sales people, but either the Mexican government or its airport commission must have reined them in. In previous years it was perilous to make eye contact with these persuasive, insistent men.

At last we found what we were looking for–the driver that Dive Aventuras had arranged to take us to the Omni Hotel, an hour’s ride from the airport.

And once more as I find my paranoid self checking yet again for my passport and my entry papers while people around me speak “muy rapido” in a foreign language, I think of my grandparents.

My maternal grandmother emigrated from Poland in 1913. She left a small farming village near Krakow by horse-drawn cart to the port in Germany by train and then via a Hapaq-Lloyd steamship on which she traveled in overly crowded steerage to Ellis Island. From there she boarded a train to Chicago where she worked for a year as a dishwasher and a sous chef before she traveled to Minneapolis.

Rosalia was 19 when she traveled alone from Poland to the United States. I wasn’t much younger than than  when my mother–Rosalia’s daughter–finally allowed to take a bus from our house to downtown Minneapolis with a girlfriend, and I knew the language, the customs, and the bus driver.

I read news report today of immigrants from war torn countries and I can’t imagine how hard it is for those people. Children whose vacant eyes how the horror of what they’ve seen, adults whose families were torn apart, attempts by organizations like Doctors Without Borders to mend what they can…how can this continue?!?

And then, as I sit in the shade near the pool of our hotel mesmerized by foaming waves rolling in, I hear this on the news: a Sikh–a naturalized citizen–was shot in the arm while he was in his driveway by an attacker who screamed, “Go back where you belong!”

And I wonder where I would be today–indeed, if I would even exist–if someone had sent my grandmother back to where she’d been born.

DAY 2

We’re on Day 2 of our week in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, and what I’m discovering is how content I am to do nothing.

We’ve been fortunate to be able to travel a lot in the past 20 years–to Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe, the UK, and a few other places. This is our sixth time to Puerto and our seventh to Mexico. I’m surprised at how my 71 year old self has changed.

I no longer feel an unquenchable desire to go here, see that, experience that other thing. No, this time I merely want to sit in the sun (OK…make that the shade), watch people, and read.17202996_10209730621795541_1438503532923122470_n

My travel life has slowed down exponentially and while I could attribute that to stability issues, it isn’t only a fear of falling on Puerto’s shell- and coral-embedded concrete pathways. Rater I think it’s because I’m losing people I’ve cared about: high school classmates, friends, relatives. If there has been anything to gain from those gut-seizing losses, it’s that those deaths have given me a surprising gift–an ability to slow down the pace of my “must accomplish something” days and replace that compulsion with a sense of appreciation for what I have now.

And what I have is a remarkable life, and that is more than enough.

DAY 4

I can’t stop thinking of the woman we met at the gelato shop yeIMG_0830sterday. After the usual greetings the subject turned to country of origin and then to President Trump. “I’ve not listened to any news or read any newspapers for three weeks,” she told us, which we took to mean that she was wondering what was happening.

My husband and I filled her in on the highlights, trying hard to stay neutral.

“Well,” she said, “he’s my president. I support him in everything he decides to do.”

After a few seconds of stunned silence, our gelato arrived and we could safely change the subject. But an analogy comes to mind: If Mr. Trump issued an order that approved of a 100 MPH minimum speed on our nation’s roads, would our gelato shop companion continue to support him even though people were dying  in multiple car crashes? Sadly, I got the feeling that she would. After all, her final comment was, “My president, right or wrong.”

 

 

The Internal Editor

I first published this on my original blog seven years ago. My internal editor and I am still fighting and I still don’t know who’ll win.

I’m curious. Do you work with an internal editor? I ask because it’s a concept I’ve been aware of and fascinated by for a long time. For instance, during my years as journalism advisor for Coon Rapids High School’s newspaper, my students and I often held discussions about the extent to which they were self-editing. One such discussion I clearly recall moderating was between the editor and the music reviewer pulled a deservedly scathing review of a rock concert he’d attended. The reason? He feared the put-downs that his comments would elicit from his peers.

Like the kids I, too, find myself aware of internal editors. The strongest one has the most critical voice: “You don’t know what you’re doing. That stinks. What right have you got to put that out for public viewing?” I can usually work through this one by sternly saying to it, “Shut up now!” But there’s a scarier voice that’s harder to silence. It’s the one that tells me I should write only work that will sell. This would make sense except that when I heed this voice, the work that evolves is almost always trite and contrived. What works for me…the only time that editor is silent…is when I’m learning something new.  And because that editor is silent, I let myself go. The result is almost always good–maybe not technically perfect, but fresh and alive. “Oh!” someone says; “that’s great! You need to write more like that!” And of course, that’s when that nagging voice of the “sales” editor kicks in again.

Now I’ve read enough pop psychology to know the sources of these admonitions, but  that knowledge isn’t enough to silence these insidious mumblers. So I repeat my question: Whether you paint, write, cook, knit, carve, if you, like me, have an internal editor that gets in your way, how do you handle it? I’d love to hear from you.

Don’t Lick the Metal Railing!

It wasn’t easy being the smallest in my first grade class. Was it my size that at six I felt the pressure to prove…what? that I was fearless? gutsy? spunky? not short?

Yes, all of the above. But mostly I wanted to show that I was willing to take a serious dare. I had no idea what a doubled dare meant other than one did not back down if one was to save face.

But first some back-story.

Mrs. Morris had warned us earlier on the very cold day that under no circumstances should we put our tongues on the iron railings that rimmed the school house steps. “It’s dangerous, children. Your tongues would freeze to the metal.”

Part of me was intrigued; I imagined what it would be like to be attached to the handrail under the admiring gaze of my classmates. But I was an obedient child, especially since I loved Mrs. Morris. If Mrs.Morris said, “Jump,” I would respond, “How high?”

Recess came. We sat on the still wet floor of the cloak room, tugged our overshoes on over our oxfords, and struggled with the  buckles. Wool coats, mufflers, and hats came next. Finally mittens, still smelly and wet and from the morning’s snow ball fights, finished our ensembles.

These were the days of the segregated playground: the girls on the west side of the building, boys on the east. After 30 minutes of pom pom pullaway (not easy with all those layers of clothes), the first recess bell rang and we lined up to go inside.

I don’t remember who first issued the dare, but suddenly, there it was: a whispered “I double dog dare you to put your tongue on the railing.”

Mrs. Morris’ admonition faded as the image of adulation from my peers invaded my imagination.

Yup…I did it. And yup…I was stuck.

dd7d25d8-1c89-4b8c-b38f-79fa117ed597_300_389The second recess bell rang, the one that warned us we’d be marked tardy if we didn’t get inside. One by one my friends filed past me, looking at me with fear mixed with admiration. I heard their whispered advice. “Pull!”

“No, don’t!” I mumbled incoherently. “Get Mittuth Mowith!”

The look on that dear lady’s face told me I was in trouble. Big time.

“Mary Ellen, get the coffee cup from my desk and fill it with warm water.”

Five minutes later a cascade of water released me from my frozen bondage but not without considerable pain. Tiny spots of blood dotted my tongue. It was apparent that I’d not be taking part in the afternoon’s classroom Christmas party.
I gazed longingly at the trays of cookies and the pitcher of hot chocolate that awaited everyone except me.

I dragged myself home that afternoon…a painful 12 blocks…only to find once I got there that the school nurse had already phone my mom.

She didn’t have to say anything. I knew from the look in her eyes that she thought I was about the dumbest cluck on the block.

When we returned to school after Christmas vacation–and my the pain on my torn up tongue  was long forgotten–I basked in the admiration of my classmates. Nonetheless, admiration was not enough incentive to take any more double-dog-dares. Ever.

 

 

 

Anticipation: The Best Part of Christmas

nunThe delicious agony of anticipation wrapped my brother and me in its winter hug.  Christmas started around December 15 at our house…when our teachers at last brought out the red and green tag board. (I was a whiz at cutting and gluing strips and turning them into paper chains. Or at least I thought I was.)

Tommy was five, I was eight. I’m certain we drove Mom to distraction with our nagging: “Did the mail truck come yet? Huh? Did it?” I demanded immediate answers in that whiny voice that a second grader fine tunes.

We were waiting for the arrival of Auntie Rosie’s annual Christmas gifts, sent to us all the way from Montreal. Just think of it! A present from another country!

Tommy and I never knew when the post office would deliver our gifts. UPS and Fed Ex did not yet exist and Jeff Bezos wasn’t even born. And the home with a television was a rarity. Like all the kids in our neighborhood, my brother and I relied on the magic of Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs. Night after night we paged through the thick catalog with its thin glossy pages, periodically running into the kitchen to announce that we’d changed our minds yet again. “THIS is what I want Santa to bring. Can I change my letter?”betsy-wetsy

I would shove the thumb-worn book at my mother who would sigh. “OK. Mark the page,” she’d say as she handed me yesterday’s copy of the Minneapolis Evening Star whose pages we tore into page-marking strips.

I don’t remember what I’d marked nor do I recall what Auntie Rosie sent me that year–or any other year. But oh, how easy it is to bring back the happy excitement that started mid-December gradually built over the next few weeks.

At last the day came. School vacation, big snow storm, probably no chance of a mail truck pulling up in front of our red brick duplex. I climbed down from the sofa, my preferred lookout spot. I was filled with disappointment (Christmas was only a day away). I lay down on my bed and opened my Pippi Longstocking book. I knew I could count on her to lift my mood.

I was well into chapter three when my mom called me. “Judy! There are packages here for you and Tommy.”

I suspect we almost killed each other as we raced into the front room.

I don’t know if I loved the gift or not. That memory is long gone. But even after all these decades, I remember with crystal clear clarity how happy a Gift from Another Country made me.

A Christmas Story

Sure enough, someone was under the tree setting up a train set. But something was very wrong. The guy under the tree was Dad.

Another rerun, just because I really like it…and because the new stuff I’m working on isn’t ready.

December of my sixth Christmas was filled with whisperings from older neighborhood kids that led me to question the existence of Santa. The night of December 24 put my doubts to rest. But in order to tell this story properly, I need to fill in a couple of details.

For many years my brother and I shared the only bedroom in a house so small that we set up our Christmas tree in the kitchen. My bed was at right angles to the door that looked into the kitchen, an important detail in the telling of this tale. Tommy and I had finally gone to bed with the usual Christmas eve jitters. Would he come? Would I get the bride doll I’d wanted? Would Tommy find a coveted electric train like the one that we had seen in the Dayton window? A train would be particularly special since so many of our family — Dad and Grandpa included — were firemen and engineers for the Soo Line.

Tommy and I talked and giggled late into the night until the final warning came from Mom: “If you kids don’t get to sleep there’ll be no Christmas!” And so we slept.

It must have been around 2:00 a.m. when I awoke to a noise in the kitchen. Now remember, I had a direct line of vision from my bed to that tree.

My memory now fades to shades of gray as I watch him on his knees. His arms are on the floor, his back is hunched. He reaches to place a caboose on a track…and he sobs.

I am six. I am disappointed. I am confused. I roll over and go back to sleep.

I learned the next morning that Soo Line management had called to tell my dad of his father’s sudden death of a heart attack on the steam engine Grandpa was driving that night. And that’s when I learned the truth about Santa. He lived in my dad, a man who would focus on making a little kid’s Christmas morning special despite the huge loss he had just undergone. I never did tell neighborhood kids that they were wro
ng. At six, I wouldn’t have known how. But even at six, it was enough that I knew.

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Searching for Certainty

While rummaging around in the depths of my computer files, I came across entries to my “old” blog. I published this almost seven years ago and thought it deserved revisiting. Enjoy!

I’ve always loved kits. I still have fond memories of walking the eight blocks to the local craft store with Karen, Mary Jane, Joanie. There was more than enough there for the boys: model cars, planes and boats in shiny boxes. I remember the grown-ups looking at brushes and paints. Kids younger than I begged parents for boxes of pristine Crayolas and untouched coloring books. My girlfriends and I spent a good proportion of our weekly allowances on embroidery floss, cotton dishtowels, and iron-on designs of chickens. But what I really lusted after was the paint-by-number kits.

Boxed sets of these promises of artistic perfection sang a siren’s song so strong that my birthday money didn’t stay long in my pocket. Armed with cash, I purchased a kit. The picture on the box was one I’d been lusting after for several months: a tropical ocean bay surrounded by palm trees, sand, and seabirds. A strange choice for an 11-year-old who’d lived her life in mid-America, nonetheless I knew that I was meant to paint this picture. It held so much more promise than cross-stitched chickens.

Finally at home and in my favorite work space (the kitchen of the unused second floor of my parents’ duplex), I peeled off the cellophane packaging and opened the box. Rows of tiny plastic containers held oil paints, each assigned a number that corresponded to the canvas’ black-and-white outlines. The hairs on the two small brushes reflected the overhead light. All those colors! All that potential! I dipped my brush into the azure blue of Color #3 and went at it.

And that, of course, is when reality hit. After 45 minutes of concentration (15 of which were spent trying to thin overly dried oil paints), I was invariably disappointed with my creation. Why, I’d seen better work in the coloring books of my neighbor’s first-grader!

And yet…and yet…every time I managed to acquire the proper sum of money, I’d buy another kit armed with the conviction that this time my painting would match the one on the box.

The allure of those kits is probably no mystery to anyone reading this, but it took me a long, long while to figure it out: I want certainty. Even when I know it’s not possible, I want, if not a guarantee of success, at least its likelihood.

I feel that way with my art, and I feel that way with this brain tumor. I want certainty. I want guarantees. I want to know that what I start will have a successful ending. But just like with my paintings (which often don’t come close to what I’d envisioned when I dip my brush into the colors), my brain tumor isn’t predictable, either. And while uncertainty — both in my painting and with my tumor — is sometimes uncomfortable, it’s taking me down some interesting paths.