Dust and Bone

It’s been almost four years, and the cardboard box in the purple bag still sits  on the top shelf of my closet, on his side. And I don’t know what to do, even now. I blamed my delays on Covid, but that excuse is ever weaker.

He and I had talked about it in those last sad days.  What will I do with his ashes?

He knew his future, of course. He had chosen hospice over chemo that would have given him only a few extra painful months.  Instead he planned his final weeks and the what-after. Our financial advisor came to talk to us, to assure him that I would be ok. He  talked to friends and family to say he loved them. Love came easily to him in the last years of his life, the years he shared with me.

He decided something of a person’s spirit must remain after death. I was surprised but happy for a thought that must comfort him a little. Was he afraid?  Maybe. He had never talked such things before. I knew his final moments would be his alone. I’d seen death before.

At our request two men in black suits and crisp white shirts came to talk about the arrangements, after. He asked us to play “Ode to Joy.” No service  No religious music. Just friends talking. And cremation.

But what about that cardboard box? When his first wife died, he and his daughters went to Zion National Park and scattered her ashes in a river there.

We talked about the ashes while the men in the black suits waited.  He had decided he wanted the ashes in the back yard, near the white fence of the neighbor. And we should plant a tree over it.  “How about a blue spruce?” he said.  “Not a spruce,” I said.  They get to be enormous.  It’ll get too big. We talked about other trees, rejecting them all, one after another. Too big, too messy, too short lived, not beautiful enough. We spent altogether too much time on the discussion of a suitable tree.

“How about a purple plum?” he said.  We talked about it, and he decided that would do.  A purple plum in the corner of the back yard, near the neighbor’s white fence. 

The men in the black suits said goodbye.

“We learned a lot about trees today,” said one, most solemnly.  (The memory of that remark still makes me smile.)

These days I worry about a purple plum. When I leave our house, will someone chop it down? Perhaps a tree in a park in the city or the state park would be better? Maybe a park where children play. Or some other place. I don’t know.

And the box still sits on the shelf. Dust and bone. My Jay.

Old ladies on bikes in Prince Edward Island

Tignish, the Western beginning of the trail. All good…so far.

I was in Prince Edward Island in Canada, steps away from the Confederation Trail, in an outhouse. An outhouse. My biking friend Claire was inside too. We were trying to smoosh together the soggy remains of our map so we could figure out where the heck we were before it was too dark to read. We had many kilometers yet to go and it was getting late. It was our first day of a long-planned six-day adventure. And maybe our last.

Outside we heard thunder crack and rain hammered the metal walls of the outhouse. Does lightning ever strike metal outhouses? Would one dramatic flash cook us like sardines in a can? I hoped not, because that outhouse was our refuge in the storm.

It was dry, as clean as any outhouse can expected to be, mosquito free, and big enough for both of us. It would, I thought, be a perfectly fine place to spend the night. We could worry about the trail another day. With thoughts like those, my mind reached a new low.

It had been sunny when we left Tignish, the western beginning of the trail. Claire left her jacket with Cynthia, our tour operator, who was taking our luggage to our first night’s stay. “I shall not need a jacket today,” Claire had declared. “It is not going to rain.” And to be sure, rain was not in the forecast.

Cynthia’s van pulled away and we cycled to the next little village before we heard the first claps of thunder, saw the first streaks of lightning, felt the first drops of rain. We huddled on the stone steps of the local library for a bit. Surely it would stop soon. It did not. We had to get back on our bikes.

Storm after storm passed through with scarcely a break between. Buckets of water fell on us. We were soon drenched: hair, clothes, shoes, our feet, our rented bikes, the bike bags, everything in the bags. (Too late we would understand why Cynthia had included large, empty zip-lock bags in both our packs.) 

I wondered if we should fling our bikes aside and lay in a ditch to be safe from the lightning—or were we safer staying on them, considering the rubber tires. I didn’t know; we kept on pedaling. 

As time went by, the crushed stone trail turned into two narrow rivers of water with a bumpy ridge between. We pedaled through the rivers, with dirty water splashing up our legs. 

We hadn’t seen another soul for a long, long time. No doubt everyone else was sensibly, safely inside charming cottages, watching the storms through picture windows.

Minutes before the outhouse, we stopped to look at our maps at a picnic table near the trail. A mistake. Not only did the maps get even wetter, monstrous clouds of mosquitoes rose from the wet shrubs and grass and trees that late  afternoon. Deadly mosquitoes determined to swarm over us and  suck the last drop of blood from our bodies. A scene from the African Queen was playing in my head, a scene in which Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn venture too close to shore one evening and the bugs swarm over them, almost driving them mad. (Some of you, old like me, will remember that scene.) It was exactly like that. Claire had a bottle of repellant in her pack. (I had left mine somewhere. I didn’t remember where.) As fast as we could, we sprayed and rubbed ourselves with the Skin-So-Soft repellant. It did nothing. We needed industrial strength DEET. Claire is a doctor.  I think medical schools ought to teach their students how to repel killer Canadian mosquitoes.(OK, that’s not rational or fair. But I was way past rational.)

After we’d reached the outhouse and after we’d spent some time there, both Claire and I knew we had to get our wet bodies back on our wet bikes and pedal through those narrow rivers. And we did. We didn’t even bother to complain. We’d save that for another day. Things had to get better. Five more days to go.

When we were planning our trip, I’d admitted to Claire that I might not be a good cycling companion. I hadn’t been on a bicycle in years—in decades, actually. (I had originally hoped to walk the trail instead.) She assured me I would be fine. Now, Claire is a wonderfully confident person. She’d gone on many bike tours before, several in Europe and one that took her from Vermont all the way to Montreal. She regularly takes spin classes at the gym. She is an attractive, athletic, unstoppable woman who looks and acts much, much younger than I. But she isn’t, and we were both very, very slow. 

Saratoga Spa State Park, near home. I wobbled here often.

To be perfectly honest, I was not ready to bike the length of a province, no matter how little that province might be. I had bought a bike and tried to train at home, mostly in the state park near my house. The first day I smashed into a flaming euonymus bush. I hoped my neighbors hadn’t noticed. The next day I learned I couldn’t manage a little hill and a little curve at the same time. I tipped off the trail, scraped my knee, and smashed the light on my bike. After that I was afraid of most everything: narrow paths, rough paths, ditches, hills going up, hills going down, cars, other bikes and pedestrians. I was especially afraid of families walking on the trails near my home, families with several little children wobbling on little bikes, accompanied by rambunctious puppies. They had no way of knowing that I was as wobbly as their little children and as unpredictable as their dogs. Sometimes irrational fears consumed me, and I’d get off my bike and walk awhile. More than once I wobbled out of control into tall grass beside the paths.

After considerable effort I was able to manage slow circles in empty parking lots. It would have to do. I met Claire and we drove to Charlottetown.

That had been a few days ago. Before the trail. Before the rain. Before we finally left the outhouse.

Claire and I rode further down the trail. When the rain had almost stopped, I called Cynthia to ask for directions. It turns out that she had been trying to reach us. Repeatedly. For quite awhile.

“Are you all right? Where are you? I heard you haven’t arrived at Mill River yet.”

I had turned my phone off. I didn’t want it to go dead. I was worried about an emergency—like wobbling into a ditch, falling off my bike, getting all banged up, and having to spend the night on the trail somewhere with a broken leg.

“You have an iphone, right?” Cynthia said.“Tomorrow we’ll stay connected on Find My Friends so I’ll always know where you are. If you ever need help, I can get to you.”

Then she gave me directions: “You’re almost there. Turn left off the trail at  the next road you come to. Ride a couple of kilometers, turn right at the T. You’ll see the sign for the Mill River Resort.” 

Soon enough we saw the sign. A golf cart was parked near it, and someone was sitting in the cart.

I had one fervent wish: “I hope it’s for us.”

Though really, who would be playing golf in a thunder storm? The young man who had been sent to rescue us maneuvered our bikes into the back of the cart and handed us a pile of dry white towels to mop our soggy selves off a bit while he drove down a long, wooded path. We checked in while our bikes were safely put away.

The man at the registration desk smiled broadly while checking us in, “Cynthia wants you to know that dinner is on her.” He paused just a second, “And she wants you to order wine.”

We got cleaned up, ate our dinner, slept. The next morning, it occurred to me that our bikes must be filthy. I should go down and clean them. Cynthia was already there. She’d finished cleaning our bikes and had checked to make sure they were running ok.

The fabulous Potato Museum

“I have an idea,” she said to us, not a trace of guile showing. “Why don’t I drive you to the Potato Museum and let you visit that. You can start from there—it’s a little further down the road.”

Claire spoke up immediately. “Great idea!” And it was a great idea—and a fabulous museum—especially if you like potatoes.

Every morning after that, Cynthia offered us scenic, shorter itineraries, and every morning we happily took her advice.

Now you should know that the Confederation Trail is the safest trail ever. It begins near the western end of the province and ends near the eastern. It’s where the railway used to run, so it’s flat and broad. It’s well-marked and usually in perfect condition.

And on every other day of the trip, the sun shone all day and the temperature was in the seventies. Perfect biking weather. We were never bothered by mosquitoes again. We biked along the ocean, through the woods, past farms and little villages. We ate fresh seafood twice a day, stayed in wonderful places, and met lovely people.

I hope to go again. But next time, I’ll walk. I’ll ask Cynthia to help plan an itinerary.

If you’re feeling inspired to ride bicycles in PEI, I highly recommend PEI Cycling Tours. Cynthia King is the best: helpful, kind, efficient, and very professional. (And she has a wicked good sense of humor too.) You can reach her at

PEI Cycling Tours – Cynthia King

copyright by Margaret French


david-tomaseti-AaZlf5FgUws-unsplashTraditionally, widows mourned for a year. Seems like a long time, but I understand now. It takes that long. It’s been a year since Jay died. A long year.

I had expected that he would die before me. After all, he was eleven years older. Still we were both shocked when he got sick. Our first trip to the emergency room came in late July of last year.  “I can’t be sick,” he told hospital staff. “I just set a personal best for rowing a hundred meters.” (He was an old guy but an active guy. Cancer didn’t care.) His funeral was in mid-October that same year.

I sat beside him those weeks while he said goodbye to those he loved—and said goodbye to me.

I watched myself as I mourned. “So that’s what it’s like,” I thought. “So that’s what happens. So that’s who I am. A woman who doesn’t cry much. A woman who copes sometimes, fails to cope others.”

The first month or so was full of paperwork. “Good for fending off grief,” I thought. “Keeps a person too busy to feel anything.”

For the first few days it was all about family and funeral. And after everyone had gone home, I sat at the desk that used to be my husband’s and googled what–a-recent-widow-needs-to-do. I printed pages of suggestions and started a notebook to keep track of everything: account numbers, phone numbers, passwords. dates. Call the lawyer. Get extra copies of the death certificate. Make an appointment with Social Security. Contact the VA. Change joint account at bank. Contact out-of-town friends. Credit cards. Subscriptions. Bills. Thank you cards. Car insurance. House insurance. His voter registration. His drivers license. His library card. His phone.

I spent evenings sorting through papers in an old file cabinet and shredding them till the shredder died. Bits of shredded paper were stuck in the carpet, and the vacuum cleaner didn’t work. I went online and found out how to fix it. I bought a new belt for the vacuum and fixed it. I thought to myself, “I can do this. I can cope.”  But then it broke again. And where is Jay?

I collected his clothes and gave them to charity. I organized his family photos, the ones that predated my marriage to him, and gave them to his children.

All that busy work kept me from thinking or feeling too much. And it needed to be done. I can write a book, I thought, when I’ve figured this all out.

I moved to the other side of the bed, the side closest to the bathroom. I started cooking a big batch of soup each week and eating leftovers for days. Jay hated leftovers.

Hospice offered grief counseling and I went a few times. But I mostly talked about his family, my first husband, and everyone else but Jay. Talking about Jay seemed too personal, too unseemly, too dangerous.

I went to a meeting for widows and widowers. But they all seemed stuck in grief. I wanted to go through this place of muffled feelings to some place on the other side. A place where I would live for the rest of my life, not forgetting Jay but being comfortable with myself alone.

I read books about grief. I decided that  others’ grief is probably more violent than mine. And I wondered if I am a woman who feels less deeply than others. I have always been this way. I have always thought this way. When memories of Jay flood in, I put them away.

More months passed.

Things broke in the house. A smoke alarm battery kept beeping. The toilet kept running. The cord broke on the shades on my bedroom window. The tire pressure light came on in the car.  I had to get things fixed myself. Those used to be his jobs. Now every problem is mine. I hate that.

I bought a cordless lawn mower to save money on lawn care. The neighbors saw me struggling to figure it out. I appreciated their help but hated needing it. I wanted to move some furniture, but it was too heavy for me. I used to be strong enough.

I haven’t been writing much at all. Instead I do easy jobs, like organize my spices. Again. Or I watch the news too much. And I sleep.

Or I break things. I backed into the snowbank beside my driveway. Clipped the car mirror coming into the garage. I absentmindedly stuck the fancy coffee mug that kept my coffee at a perfect 145 degrees into the microwave. It was ruined in seconds. I am colossally forgetful, even more than usual. I joke that when I can’t find something I look first in the refrigerator and if it’s not there, I am relieved that it’s probably not dementia. I worry about dementia.

I told a friend, who works as a counselor. She said matter-of-factly,” Grief brain. That’s what you got.”

I hope she means it goes away.

I feel older and weaker. Is my age catching up with me? Or is this grief too? Others in my life have also died in the past year, my ex-husband and my sister’s husband. It occurs to me that I am probably next. I am the oldest.

I miss little things. I want to tell Jay that a workshop that I led went well. I want to ask him to listen to a new story. I want us to plan our winter vacation. I want to go to some little museum in some faraway place with him. I want to watch the news with him and have him swear at the politicians. (He did it so well.) When something seems interesting to me, I want to tell him about it.

It’s been a year. He’s never going to sit in the sunroom again, listening to his books on tape. He’s not going to come back from bridge, happy because he and his partner won.

I think of these things, but not as often.

To mark the year, I had my wedding ring resized and moved it to my right hand. I loved Jay, and I want to remember him.  But I am not a wife any more. I am a widow.

I googled to find out the rules about wedding rings and widows. Apparently there are none. I have begun the last part of my life. The way is not yet clear and apparently there aren’t rules for a widow’s life, just as there are none for wedding rings. But slowly, slowly, slowly, I’ve felt the changes within begin that mean I can be happy.

copyright Margaret French 2019

These Days

I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. (From the movie Raising Arizona)

I try to write my personal stories, but it isn’t easy with Trump in the White House.

half mastMy writing group meets tomorrow morning, but today, families from Guatemala are in Tijuana hoping for asylum in the U.S. Tonight, in Tijuana, parents and children will sleep on the ground, again. They’ve walked for a month. Only a very few will be allowed to cross the border and apply for asylum. Then husbands may be separated from their wives, mothers from their children. Their suffering is meant to deter others from coming.

In 1939, when the ship of German Jewish refugees was denied entry into the United States, Roosevelt also wanted to deter others from coming. The ship went back to Europe. Many died.

It’s hard to write about my grandchildren, sleeping safely in their beds. These days.

Trump’s White House has cut regulations on air and water pollution, cut funding to fight climate change, eliminated references to climate change in government documents and websites, and withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord. Trump favors coal mining and fracking. over wind and solar power.  (He claims that windmills kill thousands of birds, like eagles.)

It’s hard to write about spotting a pileated woodpecker in the park. These days.

Our intelligence agencies have revealed that Russia interfered in the election to benefit Trump. I expect it will happen again in the election in the fall. Mueller is investigating, but some congressmen are threatening the investigation. I watch mainstream news and read mainstream newspapers and I am convinced they are trying to protect a corrupt leader.

I taught my sons to be honorable men. But if a dishonorable man is in the White House yet so many support him, how do I keep my equilibrium?

Trump’s White House wants to reduce benefits and limit access for the poor. What about the poor who are disabled, children, elderly?  Must they suffer?  When I was young I worked for a time as a welfare case worker in a poor black neighborhood near Washington, D.C. I didn’t see the color TVS my neighbors claimed were paid for with welfare largesse. I only saw poverty.

My sons are browner than I, their father Indian. At rallies, Trump stirs up hatred of those who are not white, Christian, native-born.

Do I need to worry for the safety of my sons? These days.

Today, the Washington Post asserted that Trump has lied 3,001 times since he became President. Meanwhile he rails against “Fake News”; that is, any news that doesn’t suit his purposes.  I fact check obsessively.

And all the beautiful, or bold, or silly, or meandering thoughts that I might once have written about peter out and die before I can collect them into the framework of a story. These days.

Copyright May 1, 2018

My Not-So-Merry Christmas

McGill campus

When I went to McGill I was poor. Oh I was not wretchedly poor or chronically poor. I just didn’t have any money at the time. (I lived in the women’s dorm, so I didn’t go hungry.) I expected that one day I would have enough, so it was okay.

I was at McGill because of a fourth grade teacher whose name I don’t even remember. She had sent a letter to my mother asking her to come to the school for a conference. My mother never went to conferences for me. “Why should I go to the school to see Margaret’s teacher? She never gets in trouble.” But the teacher informed her that I had done well in some standardized tests and, when I got older, I must go to a university.

“Seems like an odd reason to call us to the school. Just to tell us she’s smart. We don’t have the money for university.” And so they said to me, “Margaret, your teacher says that you have to go to university when you get big. We don’t have that kind of money, so you’ll have to figure out how to pay for it yourself.”

Years passed and their order stuck. Luckily colleges were still giving out big academic scholarships at the time. I got one that paid for tuition, books, and room and board—but not much else.

The first term was especially hard. I’d gone to the Banff School of Fine Arts to study university-level French (handy if you plan to go to university in a French-speaking province). Fun, but it meant that I didn’t have much time to earn spending money.


Sad. Missed Harry Belafonte.

A girl wants to go out with friends once in a while, share a pizza, or buy a coke from the coke machine, and there was usually not enough money for any of those. Most tragic in my young heart: Harry Belafonte came to Montreal, all my friends went to see him, and I could not. (Actually, I still feel sad about that.)

Many years later, when  she was dying, my mother scolded me. “You never told us you needed spending money in college. If you had told us, we would have sent you something.” Too late Mom.  I was a literal-minded kid who never knew that there was some flexibility in our family’s budget. I’d never forgotten what I was told in the fourth grade.

My friend Emily, from Loudonville, near Albany, was determined that my relative poverty would not interfere with our friendship. We would find things to do together that didn’t cost money. On Sundays the university library was closed. Most everything was. But Emily  was Jewish and there was a Jewish library in Montréal, open on Sundays. We could study there. We’d catch a city bus and walk a couple of blocks in a nice residential neighborhood.

chicken soupLunch time, we’d walk to a little Jewish restaurant nearby. Emily, the tiniest girl in the women’s dorm, would order a gigantic lunch: a tall glass of milk, a hearty sandwich, dessert. I would always order homemade chicken noodle soup (at twenty-five cents the cheapest thing on the menu) and a glass of water. I’d open the two packets of saltine crackers and put both in my soup.

The middle-aged woman who waited on us watched this routine for a couple of weeks. One day, after serving me soup, she came back to the counter with her two hands full of saltine crackers. She dropped them beside my bowl.

“Take them,” she said. “They’re free.” I did.

By early December of my first year, my lack of money was a problem. I was expecting the next installment of my scholarship money, and it hadn’t come in. I had exactly thirteen cents to my name. I couldn’t afford to buy Christmas gifts for my family.

“Let me lend you some money,” Emily said.

I refused. I was determined to be poor but proud.


I had only thirteen cents to my name, and I had runs in my stockings. Not nearly enough, even then, for a new pair of nylons. I wasn’t permitted to wear slacks. At McGill, at the time, women living in the women’s dorm could only wear slacks on Sundays or to go skiing. We wore skirts, nylons, heels six days a week.

“In the States, everybody wears bobby socks,” Emily told me. She implied that Canadians were more than a little behind the times. No matter. Skirts, heels, and nylons with runs would have to do.

Then came my holiday miracle. I got a formal letter, on letterhead, from the Masons of Montreal. It seems that every year they gave a scholarship to a deserving student and that year, they were awarding it to me.  What luck! Remarkable since I had never applied and knew nothing at all about the Masons. But if ever an award came in handy, that was it. Fifty dollars. Enough to buy gifts, stockings, and tide me over till the installment came.

Christmas break came. Everyone in the dorm went home except for me and the eight girls from Hong Kong. They always sat at a table for eight and spoke only Chinese and only to each other. I sat at another table alone. My parents never found out that everybody else went home for the break; I never told them. I had no money for the long train trip home to Alberta.

On Christmas morning I was alone in my wing of the dorm. I unwrapped my presents, walnutsdumped the contents of my stocking—the nuts, candy, orange, apple, fashion magazine, and fingernail polish on my desk. My mother had forgotten that I didn’t have a nutcracker, so I smashed the walnuts with my shoe and felt very much alone.

snowy montrealThere were no meals served Christmas day. The dining staff had been given the day off. Most of the restaurants downtown were closed for the holiday. I bundled up and plowed through a bitterly cold wind, with my boots crunching in the snow, and ate lunch in a deli on Saint Catherine’s Street.

I’d been invited to a woman’s house a long walk away for a traditional dinner. Every Christmas she invited international students to her home. A mix of young men from around the world—and me. I was terribly shy, but not so shy that I had to walk home alone.


After Christmas my friend Emily had invited me to spend a few days at her house in Loudonville, near Albany. I was nervous. I didn’t know whether it was polite to let her parents pay for the treats she’d planned for me: a make-your-own sundae at Stewarts, a trip to the State Capital to hear Rockefeller, a trip to a shoe store where, unlike old-fashioned Canada where salesman brought shoes for one to try on, hundreds of pairs of shoes were lined up on racks. So much more up-to-date, Emily assured me.

I’d brought what I hoped was an appropriate gift for Emily’s mother, a bone china cup and saucer. At least in those days, every Canadian woman I knew collected cups and saucers and they didn’t have to match. By some extraordinary coincidence, Emily’s mother collected that very pattern. I was relieved. Maybe my gift was ok.

Both of Emily’s parents were lawyers and her mother was also a novelist. Apparently her mother’s hobby was sewing bathrobes. Privately I thought it odd. At the time, I didn’t own one. Emily’s mother opened up a trunk and inside were twenty-four bathrobes she hadn’t found anyone to give to. I was offered the bathrobe of my choice. I thought about it. It seemed okay to take one because she had so many. They were all made from the same pattern: a roomy kimono and not, I noticed, particularly well-made. My mother sewed very well, and she’d taught me to sew too. For a bathrobe, it didn’t really matter. The bathrobe I chose was a many-colored horizontal striped corduroy bathroom with two huge pockets. I wore it for years and years and years. It was practical and comfortable and colorful.

masonsThe evening before we left to go back to college, Emily’s dad showed us some special memorabilia in their basement family room. It seems that  Emily’s father had been active in the local Masons for a very long time. What a coincidence! It was the Masons in Montreal that had given me the money that had taken me through the month of December, that had let me buy gifts for my family, a smoked meat sandwich in a Jewish deli for lunch on a bitterly cold Christmas day, nylon stockings and more.

For years I didn’t make the connection between Emily’s father and the Masons of Montreal. I suppose it was too embarrassing for me to think I’d been the object of Emily’s family’s charity.

Now, of  course, I am certain that Emily Champagne’s family found a way to give me the money that I badly needed but was too proud to accept. What extraordinary kindness.



Copyright December 11, 2017

The Henna Party

burkhaThe little girls in this story are teenagers now, but I think this story matters now more than ever. Jennifer, my daughter-in-law, told it to me, and it makes me smile.

My son and his wife and daughters live in a picture-book village of good-hearted, hard-working people in Connecticut.  Many people there are pretty well-off and some of them are truly wealthy. But, to be sure, there’s not a whole lot of diversity in that town. It must be harder to teach children positive beliefs and values about diversity and tolerance when they don’t see a mix of people in their schools, in their shops, in their get-togethers. Maybe they have to work at it a little.

My ex-husband is Hindu and from India. His brothers and sisters now live in Canada and the States, and, as my sons’ younger cousins married, my sons and their families were invited to lots of weddings. 

Hindu weddings are fabulous affairs. My granddaughters loved most everything about them. 

Their grandfather, step-grandmother, and other relatives were sure to present them with fancy, colorful, sparkling Indian party clothes to wear and armloads of bangles. The wedding ceremony is spectacular.  The groom comes riding on a white horse; the bride is dressed in an embroidered red sari and gold jewelry; bride and groom circle around a for-real sacred fire.

As is true everywhere, adoring older relatives must be endured.

“Ah beti, kaisa hal hai?” Oh, little one, how are you? “Bahut sunder hai, pyari hai.” So pretty. so lovely.

And those same older relatives will smother them with too many kisses and hugs and cheek pinchings.

But the parties make up for that. Children are invited and are always welcome, no staying in a motel with a babysitter.  They dance to the wee hours to the loud, happy music.

Now a pre-wedding party that the girls love is the henna party. An artist draws elaborate feetdesigns on the hands and feet of the bride, family, and friends with a dye made from the henna plant.  The stylized vines, flowers, paisleys, flowers, and birds will last for a week or more.  Each design has special significance. All are symbols of love between husband and wife and hopes for a happy marriage.

My granddaughters don’t care anything about symbolism. They just like the designs.

A henna party. Too cool. Just the thing, thought Jennifer, for her two youngest, Avery, seven, and Alix Lily, nine, to celebrate their birthdays, only a week apart.  All the girls invited would sit together, talking and giggling, while a henna artist painted designs on their hands or feet.  Then they’d have a dessert buffet, Alix Lily’s idea.  She’d seen one on a family vacation.  Afterwards, they could run around outside and shriek and be silly as little girls do.

But where to find a henna artist in Connecticut? My daughter-in-law, who is not Indian but Italian/English went to the internet and found two artists within commuting distance.  Both Hindus and Muslims have henna parties, and, as if happens, one of those artists was a  Muslim woman so orthodox that that she wore a burkha, the traditional garment that goes over clothes and covers a woman completely except for her eyes. And it was her designs on the website that were especially beautiful and interesting.

img_1753-2The girls made the final decision.  What mattered, of course, were the designs.  The orthodox Muslim woman got the job.

Jennifer passionately believes in tolerance and respect for all, and she didn’t tell me if she worried about the choice, just a little. How would the sheltered girls react to a Muslim woman in a burkha? What did they know of burkhas? Some had never seen so much as a hajib.

But all went well. The designs were lovely, and the woman was lovely too. The burkha came off when my son was not in the room, and she was comfortable answering all the girls’ questions. To me, that was the best part—that the girls felt comfortable asking questions.

The party was a success. Henna designs, dessert buffet, running around the back yard.

I think it matters. I like to think that from now on, whenever these little girls think about Muslims, they will first remember a nice woman who painted pretty designs on their hands and answered all their questions with loving patience.

Copyright 2016 by Margaret French

Becoming American

flag-973746_640A conservative friend in Texas asked me a question that caught me off guard and set me thinking.

She hesitated before she asked me. “You weren’t born in the States so…how do you feel about the pledge of allegiance?”

The question was respectfully asked and deserved a thoughtful answer. I knew it mattered to her so I rattled off an answer that I hoped sounded positive and not too incoherent.

To be honest, I had never given it much thought. I didn’t grow up saying a pledge of allegiance in Canada. I always stand respectfully for the pledge though I don’t always put my hand over my heart, just feels kind of weird. I’m comfortable with the words except for “under God” which—to me—seems at odds with freedom of religion.

However, I believe America is much greater than the words. After all, the pledge was not written till 1892. The admonition to put one’s hand over one’s heart didn’t come until 1942, and the words “under God” weren’t added until 1954. People were deeply patriotic long before then.

I’m even comfortable if some people choose to exercise their right to freedom of speech by kneeling during the national anthem. Freedom of speech and freedom to protest peacefully matter.

But I think her question may have hinted at something deeper than the pledge. Can a person who was not born in the United States ever be as patriotic as a native-born American?

I can’t speak for everyone who came to this country from another, but I can tell my own story.

immigrantsI am from Canada. When we crossed into the States to live here for the rest of our lives, I thought about the stories of others who had come from other countries. I felt as if I ought to have climbed mountains or crossed rivers; escaped violence, famine, or persecution; ought to be in shabby clothes, maybe wearing a kerchief over my head tied under my chin, maybe with my belongings wrapped in a pack on my back.

volkswagen.jpgWhen we crossed the border in our 1965 blue Volkswagen beetle, with our baby tucked in the space behind the back seat, we’d traveled less than 100 miles. Easy.

Of course, getting that permanent resident card, the “green card,” had not been easy. It never is, but before 1965 it was harder for my husband (now my ex) than me. He was an Indian born in Pakistan. The laws at that time set quotas on immigration based on the country you were born in. There was no specific quota for Canadians: I should be fine.  But two thirds of the total quota was assigned to applicants from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. The quotas for everywhere else were pitifully small. The quota for India was 100, the same for Pakistan.

I would have happily stayed in Canada, but he wanted to come to the States where he believed career opportunities would be greater. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act. The previous quotas by national origin no longer applied. Now our immigration became a feasible dream. 

My ex-husband had no close relatives in the States, one way to get a visa under the new rules, but he had a PhD, and he was hoping to get a job offer from a company willing to work to demonstrate that no American was qualified to do the job they wanted to give to him.              

We hired an immigration lawyer and worked our way through the piles of paperwork and fact checking required of applicants. We needed to swear that we were not drunkards, prostitutes, mentally ill, etc. and we needed police clearance.

Some months later, after a trip to the American consulate in Toronto, hours of sitting, an intensive interview, and more paperwork, we were cleared to come to the United States. And after getting our affairs in order, we made that hundred mile trip in our little blue car.

Five years after we arrived, as soon as he became eligible for citizenship, my ex-husband applied for citizenship. He had no reservations at all. He very much wanted to be an American and had never wavered.

But me? Even though he continually urged me to apply for citizenship, it took me ten years. Every January I signed another alien registration form. Alien. Ugly word. Elections came and went, and I couldn’t vote.

I loved, will always love Canada, my motherland. Becoming an American (at least at that time)  meant swearing under oath before a judge not only that I would be loyal to the United States, but that I no longer had any allegiance to Canada.

Changes to the head and heart take time. Finally I tipped towards citizenship.  After all, two of my children were born in the States. I was almost certainly going to spend the rest of my life here. The United States and the American people were good to me. And I didn’t want to spend my life as an alien. I wanted to belong here.

Friends from New York City who had gone through the process there warned me that the test for citizenship was brutal.

“Study everything you can. Memorize the materials they give you.”

They warned of questions like

How old do you have to be to become a senator?

How many judges are  in the Supreme Court?

“You gotta learn it all.”

I had a hunch they worried about my chances. They had felt lucky to have survived the ordeal.

I studied. I overstudied. I walked in, ready for whatever I might face.

The test in Kingston, NY, was nothing like that in New York City.

Here’s my entire test. (It’s been awhile, but I think my memory is correct.)

  1. Who was the first president?
  2. Who is president now?
  3. How many states were there originally?
  4. How many states are there now?

I humbly believe I could have passed the test long before I came to the States. (So could most Canadians.)

And there was also a test of English proficiency. I was asked to write the sentence “I live in a big house.” 

I aced it. (It didn’t hurt that English is my first language.)

dunlap_broadside_copy_of_the_united_states_declaration_of_independence_locI was on my way to becoming an American citizen. Complimentary documents arrived in the mail from the Daughters of the American Revolution. Copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Good stuff.

I, a woman descended from Loyalists who settled in the Canadian Maritimes, was being welcomed to citizenship by women whose ancestors had fought on the other, winning side. How wonderfully ironic!

The ceremony in Kingston was as fancy as a small town can make it. The boy scouts marched in and the Women’s Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The women also wore uniforms, blue and crisply pressed.  Women in the front of the little parade carried big flags on poles inserted into holders on straps that crossed their ample bosoms.

Part of me smiled at the earnest boy scouts and ladies auxiliary. I wanted to stay in my head rather than entering the patriotic moment. But another part of me marveled at  their sincerity and good will.

As each applicant approached the judge to take the oath of allegiance, the judge gave him or her a little compliment. To the woman before me, he said, “What a pretty lady.” 

As I came close, he said to me “so nice to see quality becoming citizens.”

Quality? What did he know of me? Nothing, really, except that I looked Anglo-Saxon. That particular compliment left a sour taste, reminding me of the American people’s history of  ambivalence towards immigrants.

passportBut I had become a citizen.

I’ve lived decades now as an American. Beautiful upstate New York has become my home.

My patriotism remains deep but complex and nuanced. After years of serious thought, I had taken a solemn and sincere oath of allegiance to this country. More than the passing rhetoric of one party or another, I admire and believe in the principles that this country was founded upon.

I believe in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

(Well, ok, I’m a little ambivalent about the second amendment. Well-regulated?!) 

What could be more beautiful than the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”?

I believe that worthwhile patriotism is not about declaring ourselves exceptional, nor denying or glossing over our shortcomings. It’s about remaining true to the extraordinary principles that should forever define and inspire us. It’s about working diligently to see them realized.

The pledge is good. But more important than reciting the words of the pledge or putting my hand over my heart are its closing words “with liberty and justice for all.” I believe in those words with all my heart.


© November 2016 by Margaret French

Get Well Cards & Casseroles

chicken-noodle-soup-604x334_0I fell often when I was a kid. Over things, on top of things, into things, down stairs and up stairs. I was famously clumsy.

And all those falls came with lots of minor scrapes and bruises and cuts. Did my mother kiss me and make it better? Not that I remember. Instead, she was likely to say, “What do you expect me to do? Get yourself a Band-Aid.”

My parents were tough and expected the same from us. Sometimes that was a good thing, a way to endure a hard life. The family had gone through a lot. Both my mother and father lost a parent when they were kids, and life had never been easy for either. My older brother got polio; my younger brother lost a leg in an accident. And the lesson learned was always the same: Life is hard; don’t make a fuss.

I internalized the lesson too much. Not only do I try never to make a fuss, but I expect others not to make a fuss either. And frankly, I haven’t always understood or responded adequately  to the suffering of others.

Recently I broke my arm. No big deal, eh? A month or two in a sling, physical therapy,  and I’ll be good as new.

Wrong. It hurt a lot! Who knew? And not having the use of my right arm is a huge pain in the butt. I can’t drive. My leftie handwriting looks like a first grader and  takes me forever. I can’t cut my food or slice vegetables to cook. I can’t tie my shoes or fasten my bra. I put on a happy face for Facebook, “healing nicely,” but it’s Facebook semi-truth. You know–when you post only good stuff somewhat resembling the crotchety, messy truth.

I think of all the accidents and illnesses of friends and family. Have I been as empathetic as I should have been? I don’t think so.

On the other hand, my friends and family have come through for me in a big way. I have received a flurry of greeting cards with kind wishes. They sit on my mantle where I can see them often. More kind words on Facebook, in texts, emails, phone calls. Friends have brought me casseroles, homemade bread, sliced cheese for sandwiches, salads, snacks, side dishes, and desserts, They brought fresh food for now and frozen food ready for another week’s dinners. They’ve sent flowers. They’ve offered to drive because they know I can’t. One friend suggested they’d come for Sunday dinner—and they’d bring the dinner, appetizer to dessert. Two of my stepdaughters even spent time with me in the early days, cooking, doing laundry, shopping.

Many who helped knew what the challenges were because they’d been there themselves. I smiled at an early gift of a little stack of toilet paper neatly torn into convenient lengths. But she knew what I didn’t yet: it’s hard to tear using only one’s non-dominant hand.

Would I have done as much as my friends & family have been doing for me? Not really. After all, it’s only a broken arm.

I might have said, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” And if they never asked, I might have thought they were doing just fine. And I might have meant to send a card, but too often never got around to it. And I might have wondered where’s the need to cook and bring a casserole nowadays, what with take-out restaurants and spouses to help out?

On the other hand, the kind wishes of others have been a welcome balm to me. And those dinners have been a godsend. (Pizza and Chinese food get very tiresome.) Jay has been hugely supportive, but his repertoire is definitely limited. And every other bit of help has been just that–truly good for me and appreciated. Happily I am retired and don’t have to get myself to work no matter what. It’s been nice not having to be so gosh darned brave and strong all the time, to sit in our big recliner reading lightweight mysteries (recommended by friends) and to let myself heal.

In the future, I hope that I do as much for others as they have done for me. And more than that, I hope I remain receptive to the kindness so generously offered me.

In a card, a friend included words from a Rumi poem.  I’d like to share them with you.

God created the child, that is, your wanting
So that it might cry out, so that milk might come
Cry out! Don’t be stolid and silent
With your pain Lament! And let the milk
Of loving flow into you.


copyright June 8, 2016 by Margaret French

Time Management & Housework

mopWhenever I ought do chores, I do my research first. Thoroughly. I search the internet or head to the library.

If I need to lose weight, I read all about
Pritikin. Ornish, Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, Weight watchers & cabbage soup.
Eating clean.
Eating green.
Low fat, low carb, and low sugar.
While I’m in the library, surrounded by cookbooks, I’m apt to spy an interesting book about making spice blends from scratch so I read that too. And then a book about the foods along the ancient Spice Route.. Did you know that meat kebabs and flat breads are still prepared all the way from the Middle East to China? I love those random facts.

flower-in-potIf I want a pot of flowers on the porch, I first read up on
Petunias, fuchsias, geraniums, potting soil, and self-watering containers.
Dividing perennials.
Naturalizing daffodils
When to prune hydrangeas.
Varieties of raspberries that do well in the Northeast.
And wild edible plants.

Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at freedigitalphotos.net

To get in shape, I read about

Pilates, yoga, aerobics, spin classes, weight lifting.
Kickboxing and running marathons.
Biking Prince Edward Island from end to end.
Swimming the English channel,
Walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage from France to Spain.
And Indian classical dance.

Because life is complicated, I read about simple living and mindfulness and how to live on next to nothing. And how best to spend Powerball lottery winnings—should I ever buy a Powerball ticket.

Years ago, when my sons were small and still leaving toys everywhere, coloring on the walls with crayons, and tossing their dirty socks on their closet shelves, I was strongly urged by my husband at the time to improve my housekeeping skills. To be honest, I found it hard to clean up after myself, let alone deal with my kids’ messes. I thought often and deeply about the subject. But thinking didn’t seem to help.

So I went to the library.  Week by week I checked out their collection of housecleaning books. I became something of an expert on deep cleaning, spot cleaning, and speed cleaning. But that knowledge didn’t help much either.

Then I came across a gem of a book: The author applied scientific methods to house cleaning. For example, she explained in detail how I could make a pot of coffee using the minimum number of steps and the fewest motions. There were flow charts! Admittedly the book was a little out of date. Actually, it was written before I was born; nevertheless, the notion of efficiency enthralled me.


cheaper by the dozenBest of all, the author, Lillian Gilbreth, had amazing credentials. I had heard of her; I had read the book Cheaper by the Dozen when I was a teenager. She was the mother described in the book. She had a PhD and a career as a time-motion efficiency expert. She was married to a man who was also a time-motion expert. And she had twelve children! Who in this wide, wide world would know more about efficiency at home?

I had only three kids and no job at all, and I was not a bit efficient. I read the book from cover to cover, many times. If only I could follow her principles, I would have a cleaner, more organized home.

Whenever I couldn’t cope—whenever the laundry was piled high, and train tracks and Action Jackson dolls and matchbox cars were all over the house and our shoes stuck to the kitchen floor—I went to the library and looked again for my old friend, the book by Lillian Gilbreth on efficient household management. It was always available, tucked away on a high shelf in the back of the library. I would check it out, take it home, and read it again.

Sadly, the book had precious little effect on my house even though I believe I thoroughly mastered the contents.

To be honest, I haven’t changed much over the years. If my house is tidier, it’s only because I no longer have little children at home. I have adjusted to my failings—which is probably a mistake. At the same time, I still want heroes, people who actually get things done, and done well, and share their wisdom with others.

But Dr. Lillian Gilbreth is not the one. Years and years later, I found out that Lillian—despite her expertise in household management—did not clean and did not cook. Never. She mastered only one dish in her life. She always had servants. Always.

If I’d had someone else to clean my house, it would have looked a whole lot better.

I’d like to have seen Lillian get spaghetti sauce off the kitchen walls. For that, I had plenty of experience.


copyright December 2015

Losing Religion, Finding Myself

biblesI worried that my father was going to hell.  It was his bad language. The third commandment clearly states, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” And sometimes he did. I was pretty sure Dad hadn’t broken any other commandment, but rules were rules. I, for one, did not swear. I followed rules, always.

When I annoyed my parents, which was fairly often, it was never out of defiance. It was always because I lived in my own dreamy world where I simply, continually forgot about everything else. So I lost things, left things on the bus, was untidy. Those were not sins mentioned in the Bible as I recalled. I figured I was safe.

Our family went to church occasionally, my mother more often, my father less so. My mother would tie my nickel for the collection plate in a small flowery hankie and tuck it into one of my short white gloves… so I wouldn’t lose it.

While our parents sat upstairs on the hard wooden pews, we’d be downstairs in one of the noisy rooms of Sunday school. Posters were tacked on the bare walls. As I recall, they were always variations of a kindly Jesus watching happy children playing ring-around-the rosie. One white child, one black, one native American, and one Asian. Flowers grew in green grass. Lambs frolicked.

Sunday school was boring, of course, but I was used to boring. Public school was boring too; at least on Sundays I got rewarded for one of my special talents, memorizing. Learn the 23rd psalm, get a bookmark.  Memorize the beatitudes. Get stickers. By the end of each school year, I’d have a collection of stickers, bookmarks, and posters and usually at least one more copy of the New Testament. Fifty years after I stopped going to church, I still remember all those verses.

Although always boring, church was mostly benign. We sang sweet hymns like “All things bright and beautiful” or “Jesus loves the little children” and a few that were just awful, like “Onward Christian Soldiers.” We learned very little except stories out of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John and a few stories from the Old Testament.

I loved Easter. We got dressed up in a new dresses, new straw hats with flowers. short white gloves, and patent leather Mary Jane shoes. We sat upstairs in the church, light streaming through the stained glass windows, the sermon upbeat, and the voices of the choir soaring with Hallelujahs.

We were United Church of Canada, the biggest Protestant denomination in Canada then and now. It’s a plain-minded church with liberal theology. No wine at communion. Lots of activities to help the unfortunate, lots of ecumenical outreach.

Or perhaps I should say I was Army camp/United Church. Mostly we went to the Protestant church on whatever army base we were living in at the time. Every base I lived on had two identical churches. One for Catholics. One for everyone else. The churches looked the same everywhere. The Protestant church served everyone who wasn’t Catholic. (Presumably that included Jews and anyone else with any other faith.)

The church was always plain enough to suit the United Church crowd. The minister was either United Church or Anglican (the second largest Protestant denomination in Canada). When the minister was Anglican, my mother would be in full blown fussy mode. She  strenuously objected to Anglican ministers who wore colored vestments instead of the austere black robe and white collar favored by the United Church. She objected to kneeling. But then again, my mother objected to a lot of things.

The fifties were still a time when children were seen and not heard—at least in my family. But each of us kids were processing what we were taught differently. My sister was challenging everyone; my little brother was ignoring most rules; my older brother was suffering from them; and I was trying to believe everything I was taught and obey all the rules. For it seemed to me, in my black and white world, that if you knew what was the morally right thing to do, you should always do it. And you should never do what was wrong.

As I got to be a teenager, it became complicated. I was glad I wasn’t brought up Catholic. I presumed that in order to be completely true to my faith, I would have to become a nun. But I still worried I’d have to be a missionary when I grew up.

I taught Sunday school as I got older.  I started reading lots of books on Christianity and books about every other major religion too. That habit would continue for many years.

The edifice of faith began to crack. I joined the church when I was fourteen. I remember I had to memorize the Apostles Creed. I scrutinized every word, every idea. A person who takes her religion seriously must know what she’s affirming a belief in.

Did I believe in the communion of saints or not? Come to think of it, did I believe in saints at all? I didn’t think we Protestants believed in saints. Why swear to words that didn’t apply?

The holy catholic church? The explanation was hazy though it was pointed out that catholic wasn’t capitalized. It was broad stroke catholic. It just meant everybody…or something.

The virgin birth. Did I really truly believe in a virgin birth? I had my suspicions.

Admittedly, I went to a liberal church, the Army-Camp-Mostly-United-Church. We were not asked to abandon reason or science at the door. We believed in evolution. We were encouraged to think of many bible stories as metaphors.

Jonah might not have been swallowed by a whale and survived.

Noah might not have taken two of every single animal on the face of the earth into the ark.

But the virgin birth? That seemed to be a key concept. What if I didn’t really believe it? What difference would it make?

pickupsticksMy ramshackle structure of belief started to fall apart. I couldn’t just pull out those beliefs that didn’t make sense to me. It was like pulling out sticks from a pile of pick-up sticks, without affecting anything else. 

The uptight, pompous, self-righteous girl that I was, went into a bit of a panic. At some point in high school, I reluctantly admitted to myself that I could not believe in the religion I’d been brought up on. 

I became a secretive, fervent, wretchedly unsettled agnostic. I would continue to search for a church for years. I would become almost happy enough in the Unitarian fellowship, but not quite.

I desperately wanted something to hang on to, some set of core beliefs: This is what I believe, this is what I will always believe. I set out to find or make my own core beliefs. Beliefs that I had to believe in or I would not be myself.

(A strange thing for a high school girl to be doing, but I was a strange girl.)

I came up with only two. Puny things I thought at the time. Puny things that I could not even define in any sophisticated way. Puny things that didn’t even logically hang together.

1. I believe in reason. If something strikes me as irrational or contrary to facts and science, I won’t accept it.

2.  People matter. Kindness matters. Tolerance matters.

I worried that I could not justify the second core belief from the first. But I could not abandon the second either. I hoped that over the years of my life, I would come up with a more intellectually sophisticated list.

I never did. Over the years I came to realize the limitations of both. I still believe in reason, but I know my own mind is limited.  I still believe in kindness and tolerance, but I am not always kind or tolerant, and I don’t know how to find the proper balance between being kind and standing up to the evil in the world.

But puny as they are, my beliefs have served me well enough for a half century. They will have to do. They are what I believe. They are what I will always believe.

One more thing…by now you’ve guessed that I no longer worry about the fate of my father. When I stopped believing in a personal God, I could stop believing in hell too.

copyright by Margaret French, May 2015