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.

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© 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.

ID-10055896.jpg
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.

kitchenpractical

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

Driving Mom Home

Mom with our favorite treatWho wants to drive cross country with an elderly mother? It wasn’t me.

The trip odometer rolled over to three thousand miles just as I pulled into my mother’s driveway in Edmonton, Alberta. I’d turned it on when I left my home in Schenectady. I’d just completed five days of hard but glorious driving.

It was two in the morning. I was weary and my left forearm was badly sunburned on one side. All day long, with the sun beating down, I’d rested my arm on the open window of my little red hatchback.  Nobody does that anymore unless their car, like mine, lacks air conditioning.

It was two in the morning, but all the lights were on. When I rang the doorbell, my mother flung the door open wide.

“Guess what!” She beamed and hugged me. “I’m driving back with you!”

“No!” I blurted. And I meant it.

The drive was my big adventure. Mine. Driving across the continent. Alone. This trip was about my solitude and my healing after a painful divorce. It was about the forests and rocks and lakes and prairies of Canada, my native land. I’d already stored away a thousand memories and needed about a thousand more.

My mother coming would ruin everything. She wouldn’t understand my trip. She would talk too much and repeat her same old stories. She’d gossip and fret about all the people in Alberta and never inquire about my life in NY State.

Even as I was bringing my luggage inside, I was frantically trying to think of excuses to make her change her mind. For the next several days, I would try to soften the harshness of that too shrill “no,” while still presenting logical and caring arguments to persuade her to stay home.

She had arthritis. She wouldn’t be comfortable in my tiny car. I didn’t even have a radio for heaven’s sake.

She was old and frail. Her heart was bad: she’d had heart attacks and open heart surgery, and congestive heart failure and angina. She could die on the road in some remote place far from medical care.

But a tide of opinions slowly rose against me, mostly from my mother.

“Margaret, you must have been terribly bored all alone all day, not even the radio to listen to. I could keep you company.”

“Margaret, dear, you looked awfully tired when you got home. We could share the driving.”

No way! My mother was the worst driver in the world. I remembered the time she backed out of the garage with the door still down. I remembered her hurtling down the Rocky Mountains on our way to Vancouver. “Mom, Mom, slow down! You’re going 125 km/hour on a twisting mountain road.”

In the coming days, Mom continued.

”My health? Why, I’m feeling perfectly fine. For heaven’s sake, we’ll be on the Trans-Canada Highway! Don’t you think there are doctors between here and Schenectady? And just in case I need to see a doctor in the States, I’ve bought supplemental insurance!”

“I heard my brother Russell isn’t doing so well these days. He’s blind now, did I tell you? Same thing I’ve got, macular degeneration. I suppose I’ll be blind one day soon, too. I won’t be able to travel at all then. I sure would like to see my relatives and old friends one more time.  Your brother Vance, of course, in Ottawa. And Geneva in Kingston, Ontario. Did I ever tell you that I went to school with Geneva? And Russell and Margaret and Jeanne and Hilton and the others in New Brunswick…those that aren’t already dead….

Family and friends began to come around to her way of thinking, rather than mine.

Her best friend Jerry took me aside, “Margaret, dear, this trip is so very, very, very important to your mother. Faye knows the risks, but she wants to go anyway. She worries that this  will be her last chance to visit your brother Vance and all her relatives in the Maritimes. And you know what a good traveler she is.”

Doug and Patti, my younger brother and sister-in-law, understood perfectly well why I resisted. They were the ones who were always there for my mother, taking her to doctors and shopping and helping her out. They knew all her medical problems—and they knew how she could drive a person crazy. Late into the night, after my mother went to sleep, we talked the pros and cons. Maybe my mother wore them down.  Maybe they looked forward to a holiday from her. Whatever.  They began to urge me to let her come.

“She could have a heart attack anywhere. She could have one here in Edmonton. If she were to die on the trip, at least she’d be doing something she really wants to do. And it has been a long time since she has gone to the Maritimes. Maybe it’s the right thing to do….

I was cornered, and I knew it. The decision was made. My mother was coming with me.

It was soon time to leave. We loaded up the car. It was a hot day, but, as always, my tiny mother wore a full slip, panty hose, nylon top, polyester skirt, and black sensible shoes with laces. She perched on the passenger side, barely tall enough to see out the front window. She cheerily waved the family good-bye, and we were off.

We talked…well mostly my mother talked.

“Margaret, did I tell you that Mr. Hill built a new planter for my patio? It’s the green one that I planted yellow nasturtiums in. He’s such a nice man.”

“Margaret, I heard from Irene. She’s doing ok, but her diabetes is worse. Still she bakes bread every day. Gives it away to the neighbors because she can’t eat it.”

“I worry about your sister.  I wish she and Richard would sell the farm and move to town. And I think she’d be happier if she had a hobby—she should knit an afghan or something.”

“I don’t get to church as much as I used to. Hazel would take me; she just lives across the lane, but that’s not the problem. I said to her, ‘Hazel, those wooden pews are just too darned hard to sit on for an hour.’ ”

Mostly during the day I watch the news on CBC. In my opinion, those idiot politicians in Ottawa should all be shot dead. They’re less than worthless. Though from what I see on CNN, the ones in the States are just as bad, maybe worse.”

At no time along the way, driving a week together, did we bare our souls. I never told her much about my life in Schenectady. I was always careful to guard my secrets. She never asked much. The stories she told me, I’d heard before. We mostly stayed on the surface of things, as always.

But we began to collect our shared memories of the long trip home.

We drove a couple of hundred miles out of our way to Moosejaw, Saskatchewan to buy a tee shirt for a friend of mine. My mother didn’t mind. “Of course you should buy a tee shirt for your friend. Why not!” (Afterwards, I took her picture beside the giant statue of the moose.”)

In southern Saskatchewan, it was almost 100 degrees. I was wearing a loose tee shirt and shorts and had wrapped a wet dish towel around my neck to stay cool. My mother was wearing, of course, pantyhose, full slip, nylon top, polyester skirt, and sensible shoes. I—not she—complained about the heat. I stopped in a little town just to find shade somewhere before I died of sunstroke. I’d spotted one lonely tree near an ice-cream stand. We stood in that tiny bit of shade. “This strawberry ice-cream is delicious!” said my mother. “almost as good as the grape nuts ice-cream they make down east. Maybe I’ll have some when I get there.”

We stopped in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, a little prairie town with a lot of spanking new farm equipment for sale and not much else. As we pulled into a motel parking lot late in the afternoon, I could see that my mother was in serious pain from angina. She took her nitroglycerine, then I hurriedly checked us in.  As my mother sat a little distance away, still in pain, I quietly asked the clerk “Can you give me directions to the nearest hospital?” All the scary scenarios we’d talked about came to my mind. My mother would die on the prairies while I was looking for a hospital.

“Margaret, don’t worry,” my mother insisted. “The pain has eased up. I’ll let you know if it comes back.”

I hoped she was telling the truth. We ate dinner in an improbably large Chinese restaurant near the motel. I had directions to the hospital tucked away in my purse, just in case. Only one other table was filled even though it was Saturday night. Could there possibly be enough people living near Swift Current ever to fill the restaurant? A woman with a sweet voice sang a country western song about the Pembina river in Alberta, a river that runs near my sister’s farm a hundred miles north of Edmonton. We were far from my home, far from my mother’s home, and far from the Pembina. And I didn’t want my mother to die there.

Somewhere in the mid-West, we drove into a huge thunderstorm just at sunset. Almost the entire sky, horizon to horizon, not just the sky in the West, was burnt red by the sunset, punctuated by vivid streaks of lightning. It was spectacular. I pulled the car to the side of the road. “We must remember this,” I said. “This is why we came, to see such sights.” My mother nodded yes.

East of the prairies, we drove into the spruce-dark forests north of the Great Lakes. For hours we saw few signs of civilization, so when we spotted rustic cabins, we knew we’d be spending the night. I have never seen  flying insects the likes of those inside our motel room. While my mother got ready for bed, I did battle with them. I pulled out my can of hair spray and leapt from one bed to the other spraying them, gumming up their wings, and removing them from the premises.

“How clever you are to think of such a thing,” my mother said.

I thought, “other mothers might have complained about a motel room chock full of big flying bugs.”

In Ontario we went south to a ferry to Manitoulin Island. In the motel near the dock, keys to empty motel rooms hung on an outside wall. We could choose whichever room we liked, unlock it, spend the night, and pay in the morning.

“Would you believe any business could be so trusting!” said my mother.

I’d never seen such a thing, either. We liked it.

At some point, traveling down the highway, many miles of wilderness between every hamlet or gas station, with nothing to see or everything, depending on your point of view, my mother turned to me, eyes shining, hands folded on her lap, and said serenely,

“Margaret, I want you to know, I’m having a marvelous time.”

Think of it. For seven days, my mother didn’t complain about anything on the trip. On a road punctuated mostly by signs warning us of moose, in a little car without air conditioning or even a radio, she had not complained about a single thing.

Over the next few weeks, she saw her relatives and flew home to Edmonton.

When she died a few years later, her best friend Jerry took me aside again. “Margaret, Faye always talked about the time she drove east with you. It was the very last time she saw her folks Down East.  And,” Jerry, said, “she always told me she’d had a wonderful time.”

Looking back, it didn’t hurt that, like a good Canadian, Mom remembered that even if life is hard, you don’t complain.

Too grudgingly I admit that it’s taken my lifetime to acknowledge my mother’s strengths: her adventurous spirit, her courage, her sense of humor, and her boundless will to persevere.

Even more grudgingly I admit that traveling home with my mother was not so bad.

Bloom Late…learning how to be ninety

I’ve always wanted to be a chrysanthemum, rather a daffodil. Chrysanthemums bloom late.

Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful, late-blooming chrysanthemums

When I was twenty-three, one of my colleagues announced she was getting re-married. She was thirty-three.

“How nice,” I thought, “that a woman so old can find somebody to marry her.”

Don’t shoot me: I know how awful that sounds. Happily, my definition of old has stretched by years and years and years, especially since I became a senior citizen myself. (And I cringe at the phrase “can find somebody to marry her.” But that’s another post.) These days I get senior discounts without even asking for them, and no one ever asks to see my ID. As one of my granddaughters sweetly confided: “Grammie, you’re the oldest girl I know.” 

Some of you may smile benignly and say, “What is she talking about? Seventy-one is not old. She’s a kid…I have bunions older than her.” Bless you.

I want to age well, and I don’t have much time to figure out how. I’ve begun to go to the gym more, walk in the park more, use my brain occasionally. I hope it helps though I realize it takes a certain amount of dumb luck to stay healthy to a ripe old age. Accidents and disease happen. I think about the ladies in the Alzheimer ward to whom a storytelling friend and I tell stories twice a month. Those ladies never planned to spend their last days in a nursing home, eating orange Jell-o, listening to our stories—and forgetting them. 

As it happens, thanks to storytelling and a lifelong learning group I belong to, I also have friends and acquaintances more or less ninety years old who are able to be active and engaged in life.

Recently I went to the ninetieth birthday party of a friend of mine from a writing workshop. She writes beautiful prose about her childhood home. She paints and writes poetry too. She is charming, gracious, and warm. She smiled broadly when she told her guests that she never thought she’d be lucky enough to reach ninety. Nice attitude, don’t you think?

Another friend also celebrated her ninetieth birthday in the past year, a fellow storyteller. The summer after her birthday, she and her family visited Yosemite–a long trip from NY state. She tells wonderful stories that are usually funny and always ring true—of her girlish crush on a baseball player living next door, of a walk across a frozen Niagara Falls, of boys who got trapped in a water tower on a hot day, of a loathsome lady who knew the answer to the riddle asked of King Arthur, “what is it that women want?” She is open-hearted, encouraging, frank, and humorous. 

One woman is leading weekly walks this spring in the state park near my home. I remember a hike she led a few years ago. Her passion for the environment and her knowledge of the plants we saw are stunning.

A former art teacher is leading a drawing class for seniors. She’s taught these popular classes every semester since she retired, twenty years ago. 

Another friend in my writing workshop is in several other groups as well. She self-published a book of her poetry a year or so ago and is editing a collection of poetry that her poetry group is producing. She’s a photographer, just signed up for a storytelling workshop a friend and I are leading, and writes a blog. When I ask her why she’s so active she said simply “because I don’t have much time left.”

Remarkable women, all of them. They have surely endured their share of hardships and loss and will endure more. But they choose to embrace life and look forward to the possibilities still open to them. They read, take classes, pursue their hobbies, laugh, meet with friends old and new, and care about the other people in their lives.

I don’t mean to gloss over the challenges of old age—or maybe I do. Friends of mine are dying or dealing with serious health problems and I become afraid. 

But I remember my friends who are ninety—or almost ninety—or over ninety.  I need them and other people like them in my life to inspire me, give me hope, and get me off the couch. 

When I grow up, I want to be just like them.

Belt and Necklace (Gürtel und Halsband)

threeplumsAfter my last post, several people (mostly storytellers) asked for another of the tales collected by von Schönwerth–tales that were forgotten in a Bavarian archive for a century and a half.

I’m so grateful to my friend, Sigrid Kellenter, for translating them from Prinz Rosszwifl, a recently published selection of those stories.

Sigrid’s interest in German fairytales goes way back. She  taught a popular college course in German folktales for years. I was once lucky enough to work with her and her students on their computer presentations of those stories. What fun. Recently she and I did a presentation on German fairytales that was conceived with the news in 2010 that the stories had been found.

Enjoy the story. It’s odd and abrupt–it’s a literal translation–but I think you’ll find it intriguing.

Belt and Necklace

A count had a daughter. She was, however, very ugly and thus disdained by all. This hurt her deeply and she kept mostly to herself.

Once, alone in her room, when she wept about her fate, a tiny man all of a sudden stood in front of her and offered her three plums. “Go to the water,” he said, “and throw in one of the plums. Two mermaids,  glistening like the sun, will rise up. Then throw in the second plum and one of the mermaids will step out of the water and come to you. Try hard to get her belt. Then throw the third plum into the water and the other mermaid will come and join you. Seek to get her necklace. Adorned with belt and necklace, you will be the most beautiful woman, bright like the sun. If you put them on the wrong way around, you will become invisible. Take care that you do not lose belt and necklace or carelessly take it off. Whatever may come, I will always help you.”

The count’s daughter did as she was told. She went to the water, threw in one plum and two mermaids rose up, so beautiful and shiny, one could hardly look at them. She threw in the second plum and one mermaid stepped out of the water and offered her her belt with the promise she would become queen but would have to let her have her third child when it turned three years old. The daughter threw the third plum into the water and the second mermaid came to her and offered her her necklace if she promised to give her her most beautiful child.

Adorned with belt and necklace the count’s daughter became the most beautiful woman and soon was made queen.When she walked in her garden she was resplendent like the sun and the garden resembled paradise. When she gave birth to her third child, it was a little boy, equally as beautiful as the first two. When this boy was three years old and the maid took him for a walk near the water, a mermaid appeared and pulled him down into the water.

Again she gave birth, and the sixth, another boy, was more beautiful than any of his siblings. The king loved him more than his own life. The queen gave strict orders to keep this child away from the water. One evening an old woman, her head covered with a white veil, came and asked to be given a bed for the night. Her wish was granted. When everyone was asleep, she took the boy and fled with him.

Messengers were sent everywhere but they returned without having found the boy. Then the queen confessed what had happened to both boys and, full of anger, the king  had her thrown into the same water from where she had received her belt and necklace. The water did not hurt her, however. She did not even get wet. She sank down into the magnificent palace of the mermaids and met her two children there.

Once, when the mermaids rose up to the surface of the lake to enjoy a swim, the mother saw an opportunity, turned the belt and necklace the wrong way around and fled, invisible, with her children who already had webbed feet. The mermaids raged terribly and made such huge waves, one could believe everything would be destroyed. But the joy was greater in the castle of the count.

****

Translated in 2013 by Sigrid Kellenter.

The Flying Little Box, one of the lost tales of von Schönwerth

They were forgotten, locked away for a hundred and fifty years, not in a tower like Rapunzel or in a forest like Sleeping Beauty, but in boxes and file cabinets in Bavaria. Fairy tales. Hundreds of them. All collected by a contemporary of the Grimm brothers, well-respected in his timeFranz Xaver von Schönwerth.

In 2010 they were rediscovered. When I heard the news, my heart was all aflutter. (Truly.) Though the world is awash with fairy tales, more than I will ever be able to read, I wanted to get my hands on those lost stories and read them.

Not easy. They are not yet available in English, and I don’t read German.* Fortunately, I have a good friend, Sigrid Kellenter, who taught a course in folktales when she was professor of German at a nearby college. She and I put together a presentation for a lifelong learning group. She talked about fairytales; I told them. The presentation was a great success. Much of the credit goes to Sigrid; her talk was wonderful.

I have to confess…I asked a lot of my friend. She not only had to prepare her own half of our presentation, she had to read the only collection available of von Schönwerth‘s tales, Prinz Rosszwifl, summarize many of them for me in English, and translate a selection for me to tell. I am so grateful: I got to read and tell these fascinating stories.

Now if you, too, love the idea of reading these forgotten tales, here is one of the stories she translated for me. Sigrid has not made changes in her literal translation. We want you to get a feel for how the story was originally transcribed, without all the changes that come over time. She made no attempt to make the story more plausible, more literary, or more politically correct.

Even the Grimm brothers had cleaned up their stories to make them more acceptable to their nineteenth century readers. Von Schönwerth had not.

Enjoy.

The Flying Little Box (Das fliegende Kästchen)

from the collection by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth
translated by Sigrid Kellenter, 2013

boxA carpenter, who was being kept in a dungeon, sent word to the king that if he would let him live, he would build him a treasure the likes of which no one in this world had yet seen. It was done. The carpenter brought a little box to the king, sat down on it, and it began to roar and lifted off and carried the carpenter out of one window and back into the room through another. The king kept the little box in his treasure room.

The king had a son to whom the servants had ever to bring new toys. Since he broke every one of them and there was nothing else, they brought him the little box. The boy hammered around on it and wanted to make a little wagon for himself from it. The maid brought a rope, attached it, to pull him around in it. Hardly had he sat down firmly, when it lifted off and flew in the direction of the open window and out, no matter how hard the maid pulled on the rope, and disappeared.

It was quite a journey, until the rope got caught in a tree top and the flight was halted. In the tree was an abandoned stork nest, where the boy rested for a while, and he left the little box behind, when he descended from the tree to go to the next town, nearby. He passed a shoemaker who needed an apprentice and entered service with him.

This city had a king who had not been able to have children. It was prophesized he would have a daughter who would bring shame on him when she grew up and took up with a stranger. So when the king eventually did have a daughter, he thought for a long time about what to do and he came up with the idea to build a sky scraper tower with a little room for the princess on top. And thus it was done.

The young shoemaker, who was still wearing his beautiful red shoes from home and had not torn them, heard the story about the princess who lived high above the clouds, and was beautiful to boot, from other shoemaker apprentices. So one day, he took off and went back to the tree with the stork nest, climbed up, sat down on his little box and flew off and into the princess’s tower window. And he did that every day after work, until he was suspected of doing it.

The king became mad about this. He had the window sill covered with birdlime (a heavy glue) in order to catch that “bird man,” and it so happened that a shoe was found glued to the sill. By the king’s orders, the shoe was passed from hand to hand and foot to foot. A high reward was promised to the one who would fit into the shoe. It was never claimed until finally the shoe came to the young shoemaker as old leather. He did not pay attention to the trap, slipped into the shoe and was caught and sent to prison.

The princess, when asked the name of her lover, pretended she did not know and lied, but she gave away her secret when she was told the shoemaker would become her husband and the king was already preparing their wedding bed. However, the king was preparing a funeral pyre on which he planned to burn the couple.

handsPeople ran to see what was happening. A big crowd assembled. All cried and bemoaned the fate of the unhappy young couple. They, however, sat on the wood pile in an embrace and looked cheerful. The moment the wood began to crackle and smoke, the young shoemaker pressed down on his little box under them; it roared up like a horse with wings and flew through the smoke and flames high up into the air. The king and the crowd were left with nothing. When the prince got home to his parents, he married the beautiful princess.

***

*One of von Schönwerth‘s stories has been published in English, “The Turnip Princess,” but it’s not one of my favorites. Maria Tatar, from Harvard, points out that copies of many of the tales have long been stored in Harvard’s Widener Library.

 

Few Words

Picture of father and daughter

My father, Charles Marston, home on leave during WW II, holding me

My father was a quiet man.

Every weekday morning, he got up early, and in the silence and emptiness of the morning, he slowly, methodically polished his black shoes and the brass buttons and belt buckle of his Canadian army uniform. I never knew what he did on base. He never talked about work.  Years later I would joke that he must have been a spy. He would have made a good one, my pale, thin, ordinary-looking father who knew how to keep secrets.

On warm evenings, he sat alone on the front steps, smoking a cigarette, gazing somewhere off in the distance. I thought him wise. Better, I thought, to think deep thoughts in silence than to reveal oneself with absurd chatter, like my mother. Still, I puzzled over what he liked…who he was…if he loved me.

The summer I was sixteen I was away from home for six weeks, working as a mother’s helper. I didn’t talk to anyone in my family all that time. The evening I came home, my Dad said “hello” to me; then, during dinner,  “please pass the beans.” That was all.  Years later I made it into a funny story, except that he should have said more and someone in my family, anyone,  should have heard the stories of my first time away from home alone.

But I was quiet too.  My mother liked to tell a story of me when I was four. A friend of hers had come to visit. I did not speak a word. After some time, the woman asked, “Can she talk?” My mother sputtered, “Of course she can talk. She just won’t, that’s all.”

I  believed my father cared for me,  though he never said so. I saved up bits of evidence as my mother saved snippets of string to tie together.

He and I rode together when I was a girl. He would talk enough to say where we should ride and how we should ride and take care of our horses. But we didn’t chat. Once I asked him, innocently and out of the blue, what a gelding was. He gave a brief, honest answer. My mother would have been evasive. Though I didn’t say another word, he cared  about me, I decided, because he answered my question.

When I was a senior, my parents took me shopping for a prom dress. My mother and I were ready to settle on a so-so dress for twenty dollars. He said no, it wasn’t pretty enough, and he suggested a beautiful dress, aqua with embroidered chiffon layers.  It was  thirty-five dollars, a lot of money in those days. Proof again, I decided, that he cared about me.

When I went away to university, he wrote me only once. In fact, it was the only letter he wrote me in my entire life. It was odd. He said that he was being sent to Moncton, on the East Coast. On the way home, he’d be changing planes in Montreal, spending several hours there between flights. He didn’t mention the airline company or the time and flight number, and he didn’t write about anything else. I read the letter several times. Since he had never written me before, I felt certain he must be telling me he’d like me to meet his plane to spend time with him at the airport.

I didn’t have a car and the airport was far from the university. But I was able to get there very, very early in the morning by taking several buses. I met the first plane that landed from Moncton that day. I watched as every passenger got off the plane. I met every other plane that landed from Moncton, scanned every face until it was night and no more planes were scheduled to land. He did not come.

I made my way back to the dorm, arriving late at night. I was exhausted and confused. Why did he write the letter if he hadn’t meant for me to come? Where was he? Had I somehow missed him? I don’t think that I ever felt so much like an abandoned waif as I did that long day in the airport in Montreal.

In the weeks that followed, no letter came from him or my mother explaining what had happened. I never mentioned it either. If I had misunderstood, if he had not meant for me to go to the airport, I might make him uncomfortable by bringing it up.

Years passed. I never mentioned it, ever, to my father, but I never forgot it, either.  I never mentioned it to my mother until the last months of her life.

“Do you remember the time  Dad wrote me a letter saying he’d be coming through Montreal?”

She remembered.

“What happened?”

“Well…,” my mother said casually. “As I recall, his plans got changed.”

I didn’t say anything else to her. But something didn’t quite make sense. Why did my father write that letter in the first place? And why did he never explain what happened?

Frankly I don’t pretend that I ever guessed what my father was thinking. I knew even less about his feelings. I clung to that image of my father as silently thinking lots of deep, wise thoughts. Never did I think of him as a man who brooded or felt insecure, and surely it wasn’t shyness that prevented my father from talking to me.

Long after my father died, I had a thought sharp as a stab wound. Had my father  written that letter hoping for a letter back from me to let  him know that I wanted to see him, that I wanted to meet him at the airport, that he could plan on my coming? Had he expected me to ask him what time he’d be arriving? And when he didn’t get any letter, had he changed his travel plans?

Perhaps he never mentioned it to me in the years before he died because he was too embarrassed or annoyed or hurt by what he took to be my indifference? I had not even responded to his letter.

Or maybe he did what I had done: never mentioned it because he didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable by bringing it up.

Like father, like daughter.

I was such a quiet girl.