Arachne

Intro: I have to admit…I used to think the Greek & Roman myths colossally boring. The originals must have been so much better than the watered-down versions I was reading. I decided to retell a very old translation of Ovid’s “Arachne”  in contemporary (thought still formal) language. It’s not my usual style, but give it a try anyway.  It’s a humdinger of a story.

Once there was a man named Idmon, from the land of Lydia, east of the Aegean Sea. Though of humble birth, he became renowned for the purple dyes that he used to color fine wool and linen. He married, but his wife died not long after the birth of their daughter.

As it turned out, the abilities of the father, though great, were trifling compared to those of his daughter. She became a weaver. And so extraordinary was her talent, and so devoted was she to her craft, that she was famous not only throughout Lydia, but in all the neighboring countries as well. And not to mortals only. Even the nymphs and naiads came from hillsides and streams to admire both the finished tapestries and the skill with which she practiced her craft: the way she drew the design, wound yarn into balls, turned the spindle, threw the shuttle between the threads of the warp.

Surely her talent was a gift from Athena, the goddess of weaving although the young woman bristled at the suggestion:

“Athena? Nonsense! I have worked hard and long to master my craft. Never once have I asked her for help. Never once has she stopped by to offer any. How strange that she now expects recognition from me! Truly no one, not even Athena, weaves as well as I.”

The girl continued: “Understandable. She’s no doubt busy with other chores, being goddess of wisdom, pottery, shipbuilding and heaven knows what else. As for me, I have one talent, one craft. And I devote my life to it.”

Whenever she spoke words like these, a shudder rattled the bones of everyone who heard her. Such disrespect for the goddess. Such arrogance. And heaven help the person who dared suggest she should be indebted to the goddess for her talents. For the girl would cast a withering eye in the offender’s direction and spew out a torrent of more angry words, ending with a taunt:

“Let the goddess come—if she cares and if she dares—and we will have a contest. I’ll accept my fate if I lose. For I cannot.”

As you all well know, it’s a dangerous mistake to challenge a goddess, especially a goddess as powerful and proud as Athena. The goddess herself appeared before the weaver, disguised as an old, frail woman with silver-gray hair, bent over, hobbling with a cane. Her voice cracked with age:

“My dear girl. Please, listen to the advice of an old woman. Your extraordinary skills are not due to diligence alone. The aptitude of your fingers, eyes, and mind for weaving are gifts you received from the goddess Athena. Ask forgiveness of her for your arrogant words. She will surely respond with kindness.”

The proud young woman only stopped her spindle long enough to wheel to face the old woman and say:

“You babbling old fool! It’s easy to see from your words that you’ve lived too long. If you’d like to give worthless advice to someone, perhaps you have a wayward daughter who will listen to you, or a lame-brained niece. As for me, I have work to do. Tell your goddess, don’t bother to send senile old women to chat. Tell her to come herself to challenge me any time. I’m ready.”

And the girl turned back to her work. In the next moment, the bent old woman had disappeared and the goddess showed herself in her true form. She towered high above the girl and glowed with a heavenly light. Only the briefest blush showed on the girl’s face at the transformation. The time for kindly advice and forgiveness was over. The challenge was accepted.

This would be a contest worthy of the gods. Straightaway, both Athena and the girl prepared their looms. Each tied the delicate but strong threads of the warp, using hollow canes to space the threads perfectly. They threw the shuttle across to form the woof so rapidly the eye could scarcely follow. And quickly, expertly, each drew the comb-like sly down upon each row. Horizontally, vertically each stitch was perfectly spaced, one row after another.

And, oh, the consummate artistry of the designs. Those magnificent designs! And the colors! The many shades of rose, green, purple, and gold. Close up, the people watching could not distinguish differences, so close was one shade to the next, but from a little distance, the designs appeared, one color blending imperceptibly into the next. The stories in the weaving took shape.

Athena depicted the contest between her and Poseidon for the naming of the city of Athens. There, in the middle, was Zeus in all his glory, surrounded by the other gods. And above was the olive tree, the gift that won the contest for her, so that Athens was named for her. Round it all were olive leaves. And as a warning to this impetuous girl, she wove a story in each of the four corners of the tapestry. Mortal women who challenged the gods could expect to be punished by losing their human form. In one corner, a woman was changed to a crane, in another to a stork. In a third to mountains, in the last, girls changed to marble steps.

But the girl boldly wove a design no less intricate and brilliant in her own tapestry. And the stories woven in the threads? Here were Zeus and Poseidon and other gods, all changed in form, to bull or stallion or ram, to eagle, or swan, or fowl, to flame or stream or liquid gold, to satyr or shepherd, dolphin or snake. All raping innocent mortal women, all abusing the power of the gods. (Around the border, she wove flowers and ivy.)

How scandalous the scenes, how insulting to the gods. Athena cried out:

“Arachne! How dare you!”

The goddess took her spindle and struck the girl across her forehead more than once. And whether Athena was angry at the insult woven in the threads or whether she was angry that a mortal’s skill was equal to her own, I don’t know.

In the next moment, Arachne ran for a coil of rope nearby and hanged herself. And whether she was furious at the injustice she supposed was done to her or whether she felt shame at the immensity of her grievous offense, I don’t know.

But Athena did not let her die. Instead she sprinkled her with the magical juices of the aconite plant and Arachne was restored to life. Her long, golden hair fell off her head. Her fingers stretched into many scrawny legs. Her head shrank towards her body, and her body shriveled and darkened until nothing was left but a shell for a bag of thread that she and her descendants, the spiders, those master weavers, must spin forevermore.

And whether Athena let her live out of pity—or an impulse of dark revenge to punish her and her descendants forever, that, also, I do not know.

*

Copyright by Margaret French

The Gopher Museum

 

(If you’d like to watch the YouTube video, click here.)

My mother and I shared a passion for hokey things.  Happily, Alberta, where she lived, has more giant, hokey roadside attractions per capita than any place on earth.

Together, she and I saw the giant honeybee, stalk of corn, cowboy boot, oil derrick, and beer can.

We saw the world’s largest decorated Ukrainian Easter Egg in Vegreville.  It’s a seventy-five foot engineering marvel constructed of thousands of colored aluminum triangles (and a few rhombi). It honors the centennial of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  (I’m not sure how.)

We’ve had our picture taken beside the forty-two foot kielbasa sausage near the Stawnichy Meat Processing Plant in Mundare.

We’ve traveled to the twenty-five foot concrete statue of a pyrogy (a potato dumpling) pierced by a giant dinner fork.  Across the street, in the window of a little chinese restaurant, we liked the sign, “We sell Canadian pyrogies and Chinese pyrogies.”

We’ve traveled to Drumheller, home of the Alberta badlands, piles of dinosaur bones, and the prestigious Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. People there decided they needed more, a sure-fire tourist attraction. So they built the world’s largest T-Rex. It’s eighty-six feet tall, four times the size of a real dinosaur. I’ve climbed up the stairs in her neck and took pictures of the badlands between her giant teeth.

But by the time Mom was ninety, her traveling days were almost over. Her heart and kidneys were failing. She was legally blind and painfully arthritic. Her short term memory was shot. But she still loved to travel, wanted to travel.  My sister-in-law Patti and I decided to take Mom on one more road trip, to the world famous Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington.

Mom seemed confused about our destination but no less eager to pack and hit the road. We stopped for lunch in Red Deer, a couple of hours south of

Edmonton. Mom ordered the clam chowder.  When it was served, she stirred it a  bit, looking for clams.  She couldn’t find any. She whispered loudly to us, how down east where she was born, you could get a decent bowl of clam chowder. The waitress came to refill our coffee mugs.

“Miss,” she spoke up. “I can’t find any clams in my clam chowder.”

The young waitress didn’t bat an eye.

“Oh,” she said sweetly, “We never put clams in our clam chowder.” And she left to wait on another table.

My mother could barely control herself.

“No clams in the clam chowder?” she sputtered. “I never heard of such a thing!”

And she was still complaining about the chowder later that day when we pulled into Torrington, population eighty-six.

Granny fire hydrant

We knew we were in the right place. A giant twelve foot gopher named Clem T. GoFur greeted us in the park, and all eleven fire hydrants were painted to look like gophers too.

The museum itself looks like it was once a country schoolhouse. I don’t know what I’d expected to see, perhaps historical documents related to the farmers’ long struggles against this prairie pest, or the life cycle of the Richardson ground squirrel. (Technically, they’re not really gophers at all.)

I was in for a surprise. If ever there was a museum in bad taste, if ever there was a politically incorrect museum, this was it. I gotta say…we loved it.

In Torrington, dozens of gophers are stuffed, dressed, and placed in dioramas. There is a beauty parlor with gopher customers and a gopher beautician.  A church with a gopher congregation and a gopher minister. Gopher cowboys and gopher Indians. Gopher covered wagons.  Gopher Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen.

My favorite is the gopher mayor fighting with the gopher hippie over a chipmunk.  The gopher hippie holds a sign saying G.A.G.S. (Gophers against getting stuffed.)

We described to my mother all the wonders that she could not see. I asked the docent if she had souvenirs for sale.  I was hoping for a tee-shirt that said something like, “I survived the Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alberta.”

No such luck.  She did let us read and sign the guest book. Amazing how many people from how many countries had traveled to this out-of-the-way community on the Alberta prairie. My sister-in-law still chuckles over the comment, “Free the Rodents!”

Someone else from eastern Europe had written,

“I think it’s just terrible what you did to those poor little rats!”

My mother was contemptuous:

“Rats? They’re not rats.  They’re gophers!  You’d think a person would know the difference between a rat and a gopher!”

As I recall, she didn’t express any sympathy for the creatures, whatever they were. She wasn’t that kind of woman.

The docent chatted with us for awhile.  She told us that the people in town and from nearby farms get together in the winter to discuss what dioramas they’ll add the following spring.  They decide who will sew the costumes and make the furniture and scenery.

“We can’t use roadkill,” she added, helpfully.

I thought about it.  Made sense.

We headed to a motel for the night to rest before our drive home the next day. To be honest, I don’t think my mother remembered a whole lot about the trip or the museum.  But to her dying day, one scene was etched in her failing memory. She told everyone who would listen, over and over again:

“We stopped at a restaurant for lunch. I ordered clam chowder, but I couldn’t find any clams. The waitress told me they never put clams in their clam chowder.  Can you believe it?! I never heard of such a thing!

Ice-cream for everyone on the way home

No clams in the clam chowder!”

******

Postscript:

Just so you know, some other giant roadside attractions in Alberta are a trumpeter swan, a bighorn Ram, a peace dove, a freedom-loving pig, a blue heron, a goose, a beaver, an antelope, a moose, a bison, a skunk, crows, a walleye, a mosquito, a mallard duck, a swan protecting her nest from a grizzly, a mushroom, dancing potatoes, a sunflower, a Pinto Bean, a brown-eyed susan, a pumpkin,  a crown, a cream can, a milk bottle, a lamp, a piggy bank, a badminton racket, a softball, a baseball bat, a golf putter, 100’ survey markers, a giant wind gauge, a sundial, a weather vane, giant pincers, a chuckwagon, a saddle bronc and rider, a wagon wheel, a cowboy, a brahma bull, and a 215’ teepee. And I almost forgot–a UFO landing pad and a Vulcan space ship with greetings in English, Vulcan, and Klingon.

And you thought Alberta was just Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, the Calgary Stampede, a really big shopping mall, and oil fields.

*

Copyright by Margaret French

Juxtapositions (September 11/Walk/Cancer/Hope)

Walking beside the Hudson River

Intro: Almost ten years ago, in October of 2001, I completed my first Avon walk for breast cancer, twenty miles a day for three days.* It turned out to be life-changing in completely unexpected ways.

Originally we were to walk in early October down from Bear Mountain, beside the Hudson River and across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Closing ceremonies were to be at Bryant Park, near the main public library in New York City. I’d been training for months, and I’d raised the money I needed to walk.

But on a single day, all plans changed–for the walk, for the country, and for me. My little personal concerns merged–in my mind–with huge national issues and the suffering of many.

On the morning of September 11, I left my office to pick up my mail and found my colleagues clustered around a television in the lounge. Two planes had flown into the World Trade Center and both buildings had collapsed. Like everyone else in the country, I watched the videos over and over again until my mind was numb.

Then I went back to my office. Because I couldn’t concentrate, I thought it a good time to check with my doctor about the results of a follow-up mammogram. I found out I needed to see a surgeon.

Before the day was over, plans for the Avon New York Walk for breast cancer were in disarray. No one even knew whether the walk would be held. Perhaps the organizers didn’t know what to do. Certainly New York officials were not prepared to let several thousand people, mostly women, walk over the George Washington Bridge, walk through the streets of Manhattan, and congregate in Bryant Park.

For a few weeks, we walkers sent a flurry of email to the organizers and to each other. Eventually we were told the walk was on, but postponed to the end of October and we wouldn’t be allowed to walk across the bridge into Manhattan. Instead, we would spend the final day walking around Rockland County and have closing ceremonies at a community college. Disappointing, but understandable.

On the weekend of the walk, I was excited about walking but worried about my biopsy, scheduled for the Monday after the walk. I was still reeling from the events of September 11th, and so was everyone else. Almost everyone walking that weekend was a New Yorker, and everyone had a story to tell of a friend or relative touched by the tragedy. Many had been close enough to see the flames and smoke, to breathe in the evil fumes. We told each other stories.

Even I, living upstate, had a story or two. I told of my son who had taken the train into Grand Central Station on 42nd St. arriving minutes before the first attack downtown. He saw the flames above the NYC skyscrapers as he began walking towards his meeting. Cell phone lines were jammed, his meeting surely cancelled. Soon after he returned to the station, it was evacuated. He began the long walk, in business suit and dress shoes, uptown, away from the disaster. Every face he saw was serious and stricken; no one was unaware or unaffected. He heard snatches of news on car radios. He stopped for lunch on 95th St. where he joined stunned New Yorkers. Late that day he reached the 125th station in Harlem and later still, he was able to catch the first train leaving the island of Manhattan to go home.

I told the story of my husband’s son-in-law who had been in the World Trade Center during the first attack on it ten years earlier. He descended dozens of floors in a smokey stairwell, carrying a frail, elderly woman on his back.  He laughs when he tells us that she was complaining because she was uncomfortable.

The story that haunts me, even after all these years, was that told by a young firefighter. He had been told to come late that morning because it was his first day of work.  By the time it was time for him to go in, every other firefighter in that station was dead.

And all the while we were trying to exorcise the pain of September 11th, we also talked about breast cancer–care, treatment, options, people who had survived, people walking for others’ health or memory. Several offered me advice about my own treatment to come.

By the end of October, that year, it was bitterly cold in New York. Temperatures fell at night to the low thirties. Staff went from tent to tent passing out shiny emergency blankets. Between the cold and my weariness, my middle-aged, arthritic body was screaming for Advil. Because I

Our row of tents

was scheduled for surgery when I got home, I took no pills, but lay in my sleeping bag thinking cranky thoughts.

Miraculously, our discomfort and our fears for our country and our health only intensified the spirit of triumph on the walk. Even though we might not change a single life or single event, we were trying to express something positive. We were walking. We would support others and we would face troubles with dignity and courage. Our stories mattered.

Here is one. I had met a young woman, in her early thirties, when I was training for the walk. Both her parents had died, her mother of breast cancer. She had cystic fibrosis, and her training was frequently interrupted by hospital stays. She told me that friends and family had warned her that she shouldn’t walk. It was much too hard for her weakened body.

But what else can I do?” she asked. “This is the only life I get to live.”

In the end, she was too sick to walk, and it was I who wrote her mother’s name on the wall honoring the memory of those who had died of breast cancer.

And we walked. Volunteers played music at rest stops, doled out hearty portions at mealtimes, posted funny signs along the way. At rest areas, they passed out Gatorade, bananas, granola bars, Band-Aids, souvenir stickers for our name tags. One young man parked his van along the way each day with his baby son sleeping nearby. He passed out candy and cracked jokes. His wife was one of the walkers.

A bakery near the Tappan Zee Bridge distributed pink cookies in the shape of ribbons to honor an employee who had struggled with cancer. An elementary school band played “When the Saints Come Marching In” as we straggled into their town for lunch. Their hand-made posters were plastered on every pole along our route.

At the end of each day we might have been tired and have blisters, but our legs and lungs and hearts were all still working, one step at a time. And the bright-colored autumn leaves on the trees were stunningly brilliant. The Hudson River was never more beautiful.

My husband met me at the finish line.  He’d been my supporter all along, even walking with me often when I was training. My son and his family, my stepdaughter and her family, my friend and her daughter all met me too.

Family meets me at the finish line.

Life seemed impossibly hopeful and achingly meaningful.

So I’ve decided to walk again this coming October provided that my senior-citizen body cooperates. (I’ll have a serious talk with it.) This post is my commitment to register and to put on my sneakers and head for the park.

Why walk, you say?
Because this fall it will be ten years since September 11th, ten years since I walked for the first time, and ten years since I had my brush with early-stage breast cancer. I was luckier than many. My niece Tina, lovely Tina, died of breast cancer, leaving behind a husband and two little girls.
Because I want money spent on research to eliminate the disease so my daughters-in-law, stepdaughters, and granddaughters will never fear the disease.
Because I want to join others trying to be decent, kind, and brave, by putting one step forward and then another.
And because the leaves and the river will be beautiful in October, again, and life worth celebrating.

*******

If you’d like to support me this year when I walk in October, please visit my Avon page at http://info.avonfoundation.org/goto/MargaretFrench.

Just so you know… After my second walk, in 2002, the Avon Foundation parted company with the company that had organized their 3-day walks. Now there are two long walks for breast cancer in the United States: the Susan G. Komen 3 day and the Avon 2 day. 

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Copyright by Margaret French

First Woman Buyer

Intro: A story about jobs, job equality, and family. Enjoy.

My mother, Faye Marston

In the summer of 1961, I needed a job. I’d been accepted at a university down east, scholarship and all. But I’d need money for the train fare from Alberta to Montreal and for clothes and spending money.

Lucky for me, when it came to getting a job, I had family connections. My mother was head secretary in the Purchasing Department of the University Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, my home town. She’d been there for years and knew everybody. More important, everybody knew her. She was known to be a perpetual motion machine. She walked faster than young men ran. She came early. She worked late. She told me that the hospital was looking for ward aides for the operating suite—and she knew the head of housekeeping, the woman who would be my boss.

Well, that job in the operating room suites was miserable. For eight hours a day, in a windowless room, for $135 a month, I folded doctors’ gowns and wrapped them for sterilizing in an autoclave. I emptied giant laundry baskets. On other days I washed kidney basins or served endless cups of coffee to cranky interns.

So I decided to prepare myself for a better job by learning to type—in a fashion—on an ancient manual Remington typewriter that belonged to my mother. I became an expert at “fff” and “jjj” and “the quick brown fox jumps…”

I didn’t  learn numbers because it was hard to reach that far. Besides, numbers were boring. I didn’t learn how to use carbon paper either.

The next summer I interviewed with the head of Payroll. He expected I would be a good worker—because he’d seen my mother speeding down the halls. Little did he know how different I was from her. He asked me how fast I could type. I had no idea.

“Forty words a minute,” I said.

I got the job.

I was supposed to cover for each of the women in payroll as they took summer vacations. The first day was very hard for someone who knew precious little about typing. The boss asked me to type a letter that he’d written by hand. Wouldn’t you know, the substance of that letter—and every other letter that left payroll–was chock full of numbers! And he wanted three copies in addition to the original!

When he left the office, I looked over at the other women to spy on their carbon paper techniques. Hard to remember which side went up. Hard to figure out how to hold all those sheets together. Hard to fix the mistakes with those little slips of correcting paper tucked between.

The envelope was a nightmare. Slap, tap, release, shove the envelope to the correct spot. Even so, the address was always wrong: too far to the left or right, too close to the top or bottom, and too slanted.

I threw away the messy copies and started over. By the end of the day, I’d completed one perfect letter and envelope. I’d even corrected my boss’s spelling while I was at it. My wastebasket, however, was overflowing. I’d done nothing else all day long. My boss was happy with perfection and strangely oblivious to my astonishing lack of speed.

I soon was permitted to operate the giant payroll machine, perhaps because no one else wanted to do it. I would go into a small room, alone, carrying huge hand-written spreadsheets detailing the salary and deductions for hundreds of employees.

Now, as it happens, I am a person who hyper-focuses. If I’m concentrating on something, the rest of the world disappears. When I was a teenager, I melted not one, but two whistling tea kettles while sitting four feet away, reading a book. The darned things apparently whistled until they ran dry and then slowly melted into globs on the stove. By great luck I didn’t burn the house down, and I became a well-read person at an early age.

Hyper-focusing is a great asset if you’re using a payroll machine. There I was, sitting alone in front of a humongous machine in a separate room. Column by column, row by row, I entered thousands of numbers. I could take my time. I didn’t have to pretend to know where the numbers were. No one would disturb me until I was done because if I made even a one-cent error, we would need to spend the better part of a day finding it before we could start the next payroll.

When each payroll was complete, I’d have stacks of printed records and stacks of employee checks. I have never loved any work as much as I loved using those machines.

While I was doing the work that others found too mind-numbing to do correctly, I was memorizing the salaries of every employee in the hospital. I found out some interesting things.

In those days, different jobs and different salaries for men and women were taken for granted. The job ads in newspapers were divided into two sections: those for men, and those for women. The good jobs, the high paying jobs were in the men’s section.

I was to find out, as I sat at the payroll machine memorizing salaries, that salaries for women WEREN’T FAIR. At home I informed my mother of this gross miscarriage of justice.

“Do you know how much housekeepers make?” I asked. I didn’t wait for her to answer. “$150 a month.”

She didn’t look up.

And do you know how much janitors make? $300! That’s twice as much!” My voice rose, indignant and shrill.

“Housekeepers only do dust mopping,” my mother said calmly. “Janitors do wet mopping. It’s harder.”

She seemed strangely oblivious to the point. “I’m strong,” I said. “I’d rather do the wet mopping and make twice as much money.”

“You can’t,” she said. “Only men can be janitors.”

“Another thing,” I said, “do you know what the starting salary is for a registered nurse?…$300 a month. The same as a janitor. And a janitor doesn’t even need to finish high school.”

(I knew–because I’d also memorized the forms that came from personnel.)

“An RN studies for years and years and she makes the same as a janitor who only finishes the eighth grade.”
I paused melodramatically. “It’s not right.”

The next day, injustice in the world or not, we were both back at work at the hospital.

She was, as she often told us kids, indispensable. She could lay her hands on any piece of paper in the office in seconds. She knew the order number of every product that the hospital regularly stocked. She knew every vendor. She did all the ordering for all sorts of products, from toilet paper to syringes. She trained the new secretaries and the young male buyers, fresh out of school.

None worked hard enough in her opinion, and most were fools.  But she liked her boss, Mr. Beaton.  He had the good sense to appreciate her. She saved the lovely cards he gave her at Christmas and on her birthday. She was thrilled to be invited to his house over the holidays. (His wife, she told me, was a lovely person, too, and a good cook.)

I graduated from college. By then, it was the mid-sixties and women’s lib was in the air. Betty Friedan had written her book The Feminine Mystique. Women were beginning to dream new dreams. It wasn’t that they hadn’t wanted equality before. Of course they did. But now it felt possible.

My mother was still head secretary in purchasing at the University Hospital. A position as junior buyer was posted. She fumed for days about how she knew more than all those young men put together. She was sick and tired of having to train them to do the very work that she was already doing—for a secretary’s salary.

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t have that job,” she declared. “I don’t see why, just because I’m a woman, I shouldn’t be considered.”

And all the women that she had coffee with every day agreed that the system was unjust and that she should apply.

Still, she worried about offending Mr. Beaton, about putting him in the uncomfortable position of having to turn her down for the job. He was such a nice man…

“Even so, I have half a mind to apply, anyway.”

But still—what would people think? That she had a lot of gall? A middle-aged secretary who thought she could be a buyer? It was, always had been a man’s job.

Every day she agonized over the decision. Finally, a couple of days before the deadline, she decided that come hell or high water, she would do it.

“Let them tell me to my face that I’m not qualified!”

The women that she had coffee with cheered.

Defiantly, she walked her application down to personnel and plunked it down on the desk. Defiantly she returned to her office.

Later that day Mr. Beaton stopped by her desk to talk to her.

“We were all waiting for you to apply,” he said dryly. “What took you so long? If you hadn’t applied, I was going to tell you to. You know you’re qualified.”

She got the job. First woman buyer ever at the University Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta. I suspect she didn’t get paid as much as the male buyers got paid. But she got paid a lot more than she’d got as a secretary, and it made a big difference in the retirement income she got a few years later. Even more than that, she felt that an injustice had been righted. She had been recognized in ways more substantial than praise and a little gift at Christmas time.

As for me, I’m proud of her. After all, my mother was the first woman buyer at the University of Alberta Hospital, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

*

Copyright by Margaret French

Sticks and Stones

Jay in the army with his rifle.

Intro: I held this post a few days…in Tucson, Obama had made the case for civility far better than I ever could. Still, I like this story, hope you do too.

My husband, Jay, and his brother-in-law Herb were both drafted during the Korean War. In basic training, each was issued an M-1 rifle and a bayonet.

As they tell the story now, both their drill sergeants performed the same ritual. Each would yell out to the men,

What is the spirit of the bayonet?”

And all the recruits would lunge forward, bayonets mounted on their rifles, gutting yet imaginary foes, and yelling the response in unison:

“To kill. To kill.”

Everyone except Herb. He lunged forward with the others, but only mouthed those offensive words, unable and unwilling to utter them out loud, hoping the sergeant wouldn’t notice. The Herb I’ve come to know is unfailingly gentle and kind. No doubt the army was wise, back then, to assign him to a desk job.

It’s the army’s job to train people to use the weapons they’re issued. That can’t be easy. The army must realize that a man’s heart and mind have to be adjusted before he’ll be able to plunge a sharp bayonet into another human being.

So they use the power of words.

Do any of us really believe that “words can never hurt us”? Don’t all of us live with the hurt inflicted by a sharp-tongued relative or friend? Were none of us ever influenced by the words of another, especially when uttered passionately?

Public figures who use violent words and violent imagery absolutely don’t mean for us to shoot political opponents. They want higher ratings or they want our votes.

But I for one will watch other programs; I’ll read other writings; I’ll vote for other people.

*

My husband, Jay, has asked me to add a note to this post. If I’ve described Herb, who wouldn’t utter the words, as gentle, how does that make Jay look–and every other young man who did what the drill sergeant told him to do? Let me assure you that Jay is also a gentle, good man.  That’s why I married him.

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Copyright by Margaret French

Pulling the Trigger

Pulling the Trigger

Intro: Usually, I avoid controversy. Not always.

blackgunMy father was a hunter.  Grouse, mostly.  Once he shot a deer and I cried to see it. He kept his rifles in a closet ready for hunting season: A .22, a shotgun, a 30-30, and a 30 ought something. He kept the bullets hidden safely somewhere else.

Once my younger brother, twelve or so, decided to show off the guns to a buddy.  He pulled a trigger and shot a hole through the television, the drapes, and into the wall.  Somehow or other, one bullet had been left in the rifle. My parents were stricken by the thought of what might have happened that day.

This is not written as a lecture about the evils of hunting.  It’s a much simpler thought.  Guns are dangerous. We never expect things to go wrong.  Sometimes they do.

That same summer, in the army camp where we lived, another twelve-year-old boy and his sister, fourteen, were alone at home. They were arguing in their front yard loud enough for all the neighbors to hear. Several were watching through their living room windows, annoyed by the commotion created by the squabbling kids.

Again and again she taunted him with all the reckless passion and contempt a teenager can heap upon a younger brother:

“You’re a gutless chicken! Chicken! Chicken!”

And again and again, the boy fiercely denied it.

Finally, shaking with frustration, he ran into his house and came back with his parents’ revolver.  In the front yard, before anyone overhearing the argument could react, he shouted “I’ll show you who’s a chicken!”

In the next instant, he pointed the revolver towards his own head and pulled the trigger.  And quicker than thought, the promise of a young boy’s life was forever gone.

In Arizona a Congresswoman is fighting for her life.  Others are in serious condition.  Several are dead, including a federal judge and a nine year old child. It seems this is all because a young man who apparently is mentally unstable was able to buy a gun.

What are we thinking?!

*

Copyright by Margaret French

Corn and Watermelon

Intro: I love the fancy traditional meals that we’ve been enjoying over the holidays.  Here’s a story about expectations  related to food.   And just maybe, it’s a longing for summer foods, in this, the coldest month of the year in Saratoga.

Good stuff.

When I was nine, my family moved to Calgary, Alberta. Horse country. Big cattle ranches. Rodeos. In Calgary, you can saunter down the street wearing a cowboy hat and fancy cowboy boots and not feel foolish—even if you happen to be a teacher or a construction worker or a poet.

In Calgary, my father made a new friend, an ex-bronco-riding, calf-roping cowboy named Slim. Dad bought two horses from him, a big feisty buckskin and a gentle bay mare named Talullah, a horse for him and one for me. Why just me, you say? Well, my little brother was a toddler. My older brother came down with polio and couldn’t ride. My sister thought that horses were smelly and disgusting, and my mother didn’t care to ride. So it happened that my father and I rode together, almost every day, for several years. Good years.

Every once in awhile, our horses needed shoes. And he and I would ride on paved streets around the edge of Calgary to the blacksmith’s shop. I loved everything about the shop. The strong warm smell of the horses mixed with the burning smell of the fire. The flames that lit up the room, casting shadows on the plank walls. The massive iron tongs, hammer, and anvil. The hiss when the hot iron shoes hit the water. I even liked to see him pare the hooves and nail on the horseshoes, reassured by my Dad that it didn’t hurt.

When I was not quite thirteen, my father was posted again, this time down East. Before we left Calgary, the blacksmith and his wife invited us to their home for a farewell dinner.

Their house was next to the shop, but I had never been inside. I wondered—I worried—that the house would be the same as the shop and the lot. I liked the look of the place, but what would my mother say? The blacksmith’s shop was a dilapidated, ramshackle place in need of paint. It always reminded me of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies I watched on Saturday mornings. Outside, in their dandelion field of a yard, was a shed with a purebred stallion that the blacksmith put out to stud; another shed with cocker spaniel puppies for sale; stacks of wooden crates, in case he wanted to start a mink ranch some day; and goats. I was quite sure this was all irregular, something my mother would not approve of. I also wondered what kind of meal they would serve. I have always been a person passionately interested in food. And, even then, I gave much thought to the meal we would be given, and I worried…would this eccentric couple come up with a meal my parents would find acceptable?

We didn’t eat at other people’s houses very often, but I knew what was normal, expected, and proper in a meal in my world in 1956. There must be some kind of meat: roast beef, roast pork, roast chicken, meatloaf, hamburgers, pork chops, maybe ham. There must be potatoes: boiled, mashed, baked, scalloped, hash, or potato salad. And there must be some kind of vegetable, probably canned. Canned peas, canned green beans, canned wax beans, canned corn. Maybe canned corn with pimentos, something fancy. Maybe we’d have molded jell-o with grated carrots or celery. Maybe a salad with iceberg lettuce. And for dessert—well, my father might hope for pie—but as for me, I preferred cake. Spice cake, yellow cake, white cake, upside down cake, tomato soup cake, wacky cake, marble cake, blueberry cake, gingerbread are all good. But I was hoping for devil’s food cake–with sweet seven-minute frosting.

One August evening, we went to the house and were invited inside. I looked around. None of the rickety chairs around the dining table matched. Nor did the plates on the bare wood. And other than plates, knives-forks-and-spoons, glasses, salt and pepper, and butter, there was nothing on the table.

The blacksmith and his wife were both behind the kitchen door.

“It smells funny in here!” my kid brother blurted.

“SHHHHHH.” said my mother. And she whispered, “It’s the goats.” She sniffed in shocked disapproval: “And she used to be a nurse!”

I understood the message. Nurses, taught to be acutely aware of hygiene, should not have a house that smells of goats, even after they retire.

A few minutes passed. And then the blacksmith opened the door, and the blacksmith’s wife came in carrying a big galvanized steel tub, the kind people used to wash clothes in years ago, the kind people carry ice and beer in, to the patio nowadays. But this tub was filled with neither. She sat it down on the wooden table. It was almost full—of corn on the cob. And that was it. No meat, no potatoes, no canned vegetables. Just corn.

I like corn on the cob. We had it a few times every summer. My mother would give us one ear, one and a half, maybe two. Never more. But today we could eat as many ears of corn on the cob as we wanted to, all slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt. I ate many.

When we’d all had as much corn as we wanted, she took the galvanized tub away. I looked sideways at my parents, looking to see their reaction. Only a minute or two passed before she came back through the kitchen door, holding the door open with her hip, both hands wrapped around a huge watermelon.

I also like watermelon. And we had it every summer too, once or twice. And we would be given a big slice or maybe two. But as much watermelon as we wanted? That was something else. And that night I ate a lot of watermelon.

My parents said their good-byes to the blacksmith and his wife. I sat in my place in the back seat of the Ford, nervous, waiting to hear what my parents would have to say after they were out of earshot of the blacksmith and his wife. Would they be outraged? Mocking? Would my mother say,

“What kind of dinner was that? Ridiculous! Can you believe it?”

I hoped not. That would spoil everything.

My parents looked at each other. I waited.

“I told you they were eccentric,” my father said. They both laughed.

“Good corn,” my mother said.

“Good watermelon too,” my father replied.

I could relax. The meal would not be marred by their disapproval. I was free to enjoy it completely.

It was the best meal I ever ate.

*

Copyright by  Margaret French

The Farthest-Away-in-the-World Place

On deck (prior to hypothermia)

I’ve always wanted to travel to the farthest-away-place in the world.  Once, when I was a young woman, I stood in the foothills of the Himalayas. I saw ranges of mountains, rising higher and higher as far in the distance as I could see. The Rockies were dwarfed in comparison. How far away this was from my home in Canada and how different. Still, even here, women were cooking dinner and children were noisily playing.  To these people, I knew, this place was neither far away nor exotic.  It was simply home.

Jay and I have just returned home from a cruise round the bottom of South America.  And I came closer, perhaps, to reaching this farthest-away-from-everywhere place.

In Chile, waiting for our ship.

Volcano in Puerto Montt, Chile

Oh, there were a few glitches, of course. For one thing, we missed the ship.  And no, to all of you who know me too well, it was not my fault. We had driven to New York City a day early.  We had arrived hours early to the airport.  But the airline cancelled the flight to Santiago and the next flight was delayed for hours in Lima, Peru. So we ending up staying a night in Santiago and flying into Puerto Montt, the next stop on the cruise (where snow-clad volcanoes pierce the sky) to wait for our ship.

We cruised for about two weeks. The Southern Andes are majestic.  And for most of the trip, we saw no one onshore,  no other ships, no signs that people have ever been there before though the names are familiar and evocative: the Darwin Channel, the Chilean Fjords, the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel.

We edged close to a glacier. 

We saw Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. 

And Tierra del Fuego, the island at the end of the Western hemisphere.

Tierra Del Fuego National Park

And we sailed all around Cape Horn. I had chosen my reading material carefully, Two Years Before the Mast. I wanted to immerse myself in the  history, the suffering, the promise, and the adventure of sailing round the Horn. (And a pox on those of you who would mock me because we were on a fancy cruise ship.)

Cape Horn

For most of the trip, albatrosses and other birds with names unfamiliar to me kept us company, soaring and dipping in the wind.

Traveling companions

And if a gale prevented us from stopping at  the Falkland Islands–and seeing penguins–still, how often do I get to cruise through an honest-to-goodness gale?

A Woman whose cabin was on a lower deck told me that the waves rose higher than her window and smashed against her window.  It frightened her terribly.

Too soon we reached Montevideo and Buenos Aires and too soon flew home. But the experience is still flooding my mind.

Along the way I had met a young man off on his own adventure.  He was planning to cycle in Chile, down through Patagonia on an unpaved road. He had planned his trip for a long time.  For him, I suppose, our comfy cruise was no challenge and little adventure (though he was much too polite to say so).  Certainly we were pampered.  The lattés in the Explorers Lounge onship were delicious, the books inviting, the leather chairs wonderfully comfortable, and the views magnificent.

But we all get to create and claim our own adventures, great or little. Doubtless, I’ll remember the ship, the ports, and the people we met. But the images of the sea—when the waves crashed in the gale and when the colors of sunrise and sunset colored the waters—will be vivid for me forever. So will the far-away-from-everywhere places on shore. I’ll remember the icy mountains and the dark waters and the albatrosses soaring and dipping in the wind.  Those memories will enrich and gladden me.

Copyright by Margaret French

Purple Hair and Punctuation

We wanted a book like this.

“What are the names of three of your child’s little friends?”

That was the question that stumped us. I was standing at a kiosk in the mall with my friend Linda. We were buying a personalized children’s book for our friend Judith, who was turning fifty.

We had decided which book we wanted, a birthday book. We had filled in the blank that asked for the name of the child being honored: “Judith.”

We’d entered the name of the town where she lived and the street she lived on.  But now we’d been asked for the names of her three best friends.  We looked at each other.  We were only two.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Linda.  We’ll just put in your name and mine. “What difference does it make?” Linda lives in the real world.  I’ve always admired that about her.

In just a few minutes, the book was printed and a hardbound copy was printed for us. It was beautiful, with colorful balloons on the cover. I read the opening lines:

“It was a beautiful day on Sunnyside Road in Scotia, New York.  Judith was very happy.  Today she was fifty!”

Perfect! We gave the girl at the kiosk cash for the book and walked away.  I turned the page and continued reading:

“Judith and her little friends Margaret, and Linda.” I stopped short. This was a problem. A serious problem. I turned towards Linda. We needed to talk.

“Linda,” I whispered. I looked around to see if anyone else was nearby. “The book is incorrect. “ Linda looked at me skeptically.

“It’s the punctuation,” I said.  “It’s all wrong. Oh, it would be fine if we had put in the names of three little friends.  But with only two little friends…” Again, Linda looked at me, and this time I swear she rolled her eyes just a little.

“Linda,” I said. “That comma between Margaret and Linda.” I took a deep breath. “It shouldn’t be there.”

I waited for the look of horror on her face.  As far as I was concerned, the book was ruined.  But from Linda, nothing.

“Oh, it would have been fine, don’t you see,” I continued, “It would have been fine if there had been three little friends. Then the comma would have been correct.  But with only two little friends, it’s all wrong. “

But from Linda, no reaction at all.

“We’ve got to do something,” I said.  We’ve got to go back to the kiosk and tell the woman working there.  Other people buying books must be making the same mistake.  They’ve got to know: There must be three little friends, or the punctuation will be wrong!”

Linda gave me a long, withering, oh-my-god-what-will-I-do-with-her-look.

“Margaret,” she said, in a surprisingly patient voice. “I don’t think a woman with purple hair and combat boots is going to worry about punctuation.”

Now it was my turn to be puzzled and confused. I hadn’t noticed anything different about the young woman who had helped us.

“She had purple hair?” I asked. “And combat boots?”

***

A few days later, we took Judith to dinner.  She unwrapped the book and laughed.  Then, in the restaurant, she began to read:

“It was a beautiful day on Sunnyside Road in Scotia, New York.  Judith was very happy.  Today she was fifty!”

She turned the page and continued to read.

“Judith and her little friends Margaret, and Linda…”

She stopped short.  This is all wrong,” she said. We waited.

“It’s the punctuation! There shouldn’t be a comma between Margaret and Linda.”

***

Copyright by Margaret French

Facebook Woes

Disclaimer: These friends belong to other people.

After waffling for years, I finally signed up for Facebook.

I had felt I ought to worry about privacy. After all, many of my friends do, especially those who, like me, were born eons ago. I also worried about technology destroying the human spirit, the never-ending necessity to learn new stuff, the possibility of looking ridiculous with clueless Facebook posts, and whether, when all is said and done, I even wanted to be all that sociable.

And when I had waffled long enough, I signed up. Slowly I began to enjoy the connections.  I loved seeing the photos, hearing the news, and reading the funny comments from friends and family.  I began to feel like a kid riding a bike down a hill for the first time.  You remember that moment when you realized that you were not falling off, that you’d found your balance, that you were riding a bike! The moment just before the fall and the band-aids?

Recently I made a small mistake.  Facebook was sending me messages that I wasn’t always reading carefully enough. Once, just once, I hit the “yes” button before I finished reading the entire message.  Too late!  It seems I invited every person on my gmail contact list who was not currently a member of Facebook to join: every person whom I’ve ever sent an email to, every person who has ever sent an email to me, and every person on any mailing list that I’m also on.  All in all, about five hundred people.

Since then, friends and acquaintances have been getting back to me about the invitation.  They are stopping me in the supermarket and Kinko and the library to explain their non-Facebook philosophies. Some of them are not happy.

Some, who don’t ever want any part of Facebook, have come to me to apologize.  They hope I don’t mind.  They truly appreciate the invitation.  It was very kind of me.  They hope I understand that they would prefer not to join Facebook at this time.  Dear friends. I knew they didn’t like Facebook: they’ve told me so, many times.

Others were clearly annoyed.  (And I can understand.) One woman, who had just quit a committee I am on, wrote me a rather curt email:

“I do not know why you ‘friended’ me on Facebook.  I am not interested.”

Mindlessly, I have invited all my doctors, dentists, mechanics, and insurance agents to be my friend on Facebook. I’ve invited every person on every committee I’ve been a part of. And, as far as I know, I’ve send an invitation to every company I do business with. None has said yes.

I suppose I’ve friended foreign philanthropists who want to give me millions in British pounds if I just send them a few bucks for the privilege.  Certainly they send me mail often enough.

Not everyone has rejected my invitation, of course.  (This would be a mournful post if that were true.) Many good friends accepted the invitation, and it’s wonderful hearing from them, especially when I can remember who they are.

Am I the only person who loses the connection between friends and their names?  Out of necessity, I have developed a strategy. I go to their Facebook wall, look at their photo, and try to remember how I know them. I google them.  I double check with friends who may know them. And if I’m lucky, I have the thrill of recognition. Yes! She is the barrel racing champion from Oklahoma! We met when my car broke down in Alabama! A lovely woman!!

Occasionally, I can’t remember no matter what. For example, I am now Facebook friends with a lovely young woman named Alyssa.  For the life of me, I don’t think we’ve ever met.  I do know that she loves Dancing with the Stars and puppies.  I enjoy reading about her; she seems like a person I’d love to have as a friend (and I do).

In all of this mess, I see an etiquette problem. Should I continue to skulk around, waiting for the puzzled responses from friends? (Many will go to their graves rather than tell me their true thoughts on the subject.)  Or should I write another annoying email to everyone I know telling them that I never really meant to invite them to be my friend after all?  Oh what complications I have brought upon myself and inflicted willy-nilly on others.

I was prompted to write this post this evening by an email I just got from my seven year old granddaughter. With some help from her Daddy, she wrote to explain why she, too, couldn’t be my friend on Facebook.

“Sorry, but I’m not allowed to have a Facebook account. I can when I’m older.
bye.”

Thank goodness my grandchildren are the only kids whose email addresses are in my contact list.  Think of the mayhem I would have created otherwise.

Copyright by Margaret French