Archive for the 'Women I Have Known' category

Fifth Day of Christmas: Terrific Teachers

Kindergarten was for the most part a pleasant time, though my most vivid memory of that year is of a sour disappointment.

We were required to demonstrate competence in tying our shoes, with a promised reward of a large gold star on our report card. I begged my mother to instruct me in the art of shoe-tying. Not understanding the high stakes, she did not feel a sense of urgency. There's no rush. Entering kindergarten at age 4 1/2, my motor skills were a bit behind those of my classmates. But like Elizabeth Warren, I persisted, and did learn to tie my shoelaces - only to discover on test day that we were not allowed to demonstrate competence on our own shoes. Presented with an outsized fake boot-shoe mounted on a platform, sitting on the teacher's desk facing us - wrong place, wrong height, pointing the wrong direction - I struggled to produce a bow. I was pleased with my result in this backwards formation, but my kindergarten teacher was not. It's too droopy. No gold star for droopy bows! Bitterly disappointed and angry, I felt I had been cheated. I had tied the laces on both my shoes at home that morning.  Years later, this teacher, who went to the same church as my grandparents, would remark upon The Droopy Bow every time she saw me. "You were such a bright kid, but you just couldn't tie your shoelace! It was too droopy! I couldn't give you a gold star!" Well into my college years, I dreaded seeing her at my grandparents' church.

Most of my grade school teachers loom as frightening or at best oddly disconcerting presences in my memory - teachers who carried wooden paddles and used them on our small bodies, teachers tightly focused on discipline, teachers who weren't shy about letting us know who among us was hopelessly stupid and undeserving of their precious teaching time. Here I do not exaggerate. I had a third-grade teacher who divided us into five reading groups based on how well we could read and announced one day that she did not have time to waste teaching the "slow readers" in group five - from now on, the group one readers would instruct the group five readers while she dealt with the rest of the class. I still remember the shy boy D. who was assigned me as his "reading teacher" and often wondered how his life turned out. Did he learn somehow to love books and reading? Did he ever find encouragement for anything he was interested in?

Among this sea of misery, there were a few terrific teachers. Two beloved teachers in grade school were Miss Phillips and Miss Pekar.

Miss Phillips was our music teacher. The precious time spent in her classroom was a gift. She had small percussion instruments for us to play - a triangle, a tambourine, maracas, bells, and the like - and she led us in singing. We watched filmstrips in her classroom about music and with musical accompaniment. I vividly remember one about folk music. It was the first time I heard the song "Blowin' In The Wind," the Peter, Paul, and Mary version, and I was so overwhelmed by the music and lyrics that I memorized it as I was listening to it. Miss Phillips vanished from our school one day, and the adults in our lives began to whisper about her, and then we learned a new word, leukemia, and a new sadness.

Miss Pekar was my fifth grade teacher and the one who brought the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond into my life. We read it together as a class, and we also read Charlotte's Web. When I think of Miss Pekar, I see her walking slowly around our classroom, reading a passage from one of these books, before turning the reading over to us. We each read a paragraph aloud in turn - no Group One readers "teaching" neglected and shamed Group Five readers in her class, we were all one group reading together. Miss Pekar also memorably one day brought into class a large box of books and said anyone could have any book in the box that they wanted. Oh joy! Free books! I was first to the box and what did I find? The collected plays of William Shakespeare! I recognized the name as important, also, there was just more book per book in that book than any of the other kid books in the box. A better deal! "I want this book," I said. She took the book from me and turned it over in her hands, looking doubtful. "How did this book get into the box?" I can still hear her saying that, almost to herself. "You said any book!" I said, with a child's clear sense of justice. "I'll tell you what. You can borrow it for awhile and read it if you like but then you have to return it to me." And that is how I came to read - or skim read - many of Shakespeare's plays in the fifth grade. Except for excerpts of two plays read in senior English class, that is the only time I read Shakespeare in my schooling, and the source of my (garbled) understanding of the Bard.

Three high school teachers belong in this narrative.

Mrs. Miller, my high school algebra and trig teacher was not popular with students, but by golly she taught me algebra and trig. I had no deficiencies there. If our school had actually offered calculus I have no doubt she would have been as thorough in her instruction of that subject. I still have the TI-30 scientific calculator she made us all buy in senior year - it cost my parents $30, in 1979 - because calculators were the way of the future and we needed to learn how to use them.

Mrs. Long, my typing teacher was fierce. She was as rigorous and as hard on errors as my trig teacher. She gave me a skill I have used throughout my life, one that carried me through typing my term papers on an old manual typewriter using onion skin and carbon paper, to typing on an electric typewriter with wite-out, to typing on a keyboard at a mainframe using LaTex to format my master's thesis, to typing on a PC to write my PhD thesis, to typing this blog post on a laptop. I don't know what she'd make of thumb typing emoji texters today. Maybe she'd just consider it another form of shorthand, which she also taught, back in the day.

Lastly, Mrs. Shuttlesworth, my freshman year French and English teacher, did teach me French, and did teach me some song lyrics could be analyzed just like poetry (reminding me of my beloved Miss Phillips and that encounter with Blowin' In The Wind - hey, didn't the Nobel Committee have something to say about that?!?) Even more than that, she gave me a sense that I should value my intellect, and that I should strive for something beyond the confines of my known world.

It is not possible to overestimate the importance of this in a sea of schooling that was often anti-intellectual or just downright incompetent. Some teachers meant well, but some didn't care, or had given up, or were in over their heads. Nobody - and by nobody I mean nobody in Harrisburg - cared if coal miner's and farmer's kids in Greene County, PA weren't getting a world class education, or didn't have adequate resources in their schools, or didn't have access to enrichment programs. The odds were against us students. But: The teachers who did do a good job, who sang to and with us, who read to and with us, who taught us cosine secant tangent sine! 3.14159! , who taught us a useful skill while embodying competence, confidence, and intelligence - these teachers were terrific when all the odds were against them, too.


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Third Day of Christmas: Amazing Aunts

The three wise aunts: next door, Aunt Nellie, across the street Aunt Mary, and catty-corner across the street was Aunt Stella. These were in fact my great-aunts. Mary was sister to my mother's mother, Nellie sister to mom's father, and Stella was married to a brother of mom's father. Mom, bereft of her mother, relied heavily on these women in the early years of her marriage.

Aunt Stella was an exceptional baker. She took over the thrice-weekly bread-baking for the family after my grandmother's death, until enough time had passed that she deemed it acceptable to gently suggest to mom and her sister Betty that perhaps it was time they learn to master this task. Aunt Stella was famed for her cookies and pastries; there was always something delicious in her kitchen. In addition, there was a swing in her backyard. My sister and I would obtain permission from mom to trot across the street, knock on the door, and ask if we could play on the swing. I can still see in my mind's eye the gentle smile on Aunt Stella's face and in her eyes; the answer was always yes. Mom sternly instructed us ahead of time never to ask Aunt Stella for anything to eat, but we nearly always got a cookie. Oftentimes it was a ladylock, and no one made better ladylocks than Aunt Stella. By "no one" I mean no one in the entire universe of cookies. Near the end of her life she did teach a young woman in town how to make them, and hers are nearly as good as Aunt Stella's were. Only nearly as good, because nothing in the world will ever taste like the freshly made ladylocks Aunt Stella placed in our grubby little hands on a warm spring afternoon when we were six and seven years old.

Aunt Mary and Aunt Stella accompanied my father and mother on the epic trip to the hospital late on the wintry January night of my birth. The hospital was a good thirty minutes drive away and mom's water had already broken at home as she was mopping the kitchen floor (as you do, at the end of your ninth month, after 11 pm, when the other four kids are already in bed.) Aunt Nellie stayed with Pappap and the kids, Aunt Mary and Aunt Stella came along to help out mom because I seemed to be, as Pappap later said, "in a hurry to get into this world." In a hurry I was, and just a mile or so out of town, mom said "Ed, you'd better pull the car over, this baby is coming!" To which my frantic father famously replied, "Can't you just cross your legs?" "Ed, pull the car over! The baby's head is coming out!" And so I was born along the side of a road in the back seat of the car, with the aunts presiding.

Aunt Nellie features in many stories about mom learning to cook, as she was right next door. Mom would often run over for advice. The first time mom made Thanksgiving turkey, she asked how is the gravy made? Aunt Nellie told her to take the neck and boil it in some water, and save that water to use for the gravy. Mix with some flour and use to thicken for the gravy. Later she asked mom how the gravy came out. Not so good, mom reported. It was thin and gray and watery and had not much flavor. How did you make it, Aunt Nellie asked. I saved that neck water like you said, and I added flour to it, and it got a little thick, but it didn't have good color and it didn't have much taste. So Aunt Nellie naturally wondered, what had she done with the pan drippings? Oh, I threw those out. And here you have to picture Aunt Nellie's clenched fingertips flying up to her mouth, face scrunched in shock and dismay, as she squeals/screams/cries out oooooooooooohhhhhhhmmmmmnnnn! in grief for all that flavor thrown away. Many years later I would cook Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, and labor carefully over the making of the gravy, which came out in perfect consistency and astonishing flavor, only to watch in horror after dinner as the friend jumped up from the table to announce: "The dog has been so good all through dinner he deserves a special treat!" He promptly filled a large bowl with kibble and poured three large ladles-full of my gravy over the kibble. Oooooooooooohhhhhhhmmmmmnnnn!

The list of amazing aunts is so long, it would take a book chapter to cover them all. There was of course Aunt Betty, mom's older sister and best friend. There were two by name of Anna Marie, one very short and quiet and one very tall and exuberant. Two by name of Rose: the one in Virginia, she of the French-toasted fruit sandwiches, and one in exotic Cleveland, who had insisted on taking shop class rather than home ec in high school, and who had met Albert Einstein while working in Washington, DC. There was an Aunt Mary Ann, whom my mom raised from a young age and my dad had liked to tease; Aunt Margie, throughout her life tireless in caring for her family and the ill and elderly around her; an Aunt Mary Kathryn who was so kind to us over many years of our family tragedy; and an Aunt Catherine, adventurous enough to go off to live in Texas, funny, and smart and beloved, as was Cleveland Rose, of my father.

That's just an intro to their names and a sketch of their ordering in constellations of my family sky. If you had a day or two, oh the stories I could tell! And that's not even touching on the cousin-of-mom-who-functioned-like-aunts, and the more distant great aunts...

The great-aunts are long gone. Seven of my nine aunts still survive, though some are in poor health. For most of these women, their careers were the home and family, though a few did have paying gigs as well. Even so, they were (and are) so different from one another, and collectively they gave me many examples of adult womanhood for examination and inspiration. The best of what I am able to do in nurturing others comes in part I am sure from what I absorbed from being in their presence. Amazing aunts, how sweet they are.

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Things My Mother Liked

This was originally a Storify, tweeted out in 2013 shortly after my mother passed away.  I've rescued it to here because, as Christina Pikas reminds us, Storify is going away this spring. 

Sometimes I feel I understood little and lived as an overgrown adolescent most of my life. Maybe 6 or 7 years ago, I began to attend more closely to my mother's life - her life not just as my mother, but as a person. Too late smart, as they say.


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Second Day of Christmas: Sisters and Cousins

Sisters and cousins - I was surrounded by, embedded in a web of these, growing up.

I grew up with two sisters, one a year-and-a-half younger, one four years older. Down the street from us lived our second cousins, also a family of three girls and three boys, the girls approximately the same ages as we were. My sisters and I were all in the marching band, as were the second cousins down the street. We had first cousins "across town" (a five minute walk). They too were in the marching band. J was the same age as my older sister, D a year older; and I was just a year younger than P.

Seven miles away in the town where my father grew up lived my Aunt Betty's family. Her three children were more the age my two oldest brothers. B, the youngest, worked summers at the concession stand of the public swimming pool. Clutching a precious nickel and dime or perhaps a quarter, making our way in dripping wet suits from poolside to the concession stand in the middle of the park under shade trees, it was always more special to get our candy bar or slice of pizza when B was behind the sliding screen window. Also, sometimes B gave us an extra slice of pizza (to share) on the house, which made us feel enormously privileged and fortunate. B's father was Italian - Italian! - and B had inherited his coloring and handsome features. In my Slovak world of studda bubbas, she was a bella stella.

There were a slew of other cousins we saw only on holidays or at family reunions - from Ohio and Virginia and Maryland, eighteen of them first cousins, as well as uncounted second cousins whose names and connections to ourselves we often had to relearn each year at reunion time. These were just the relatives on my mother's side. Cousins did not sprout quite like weeds on dad's side of the family but there was still a good crop - eight first cousins in Pittsburgh, Ohio, and by god, Texas! It boggled the mind to think we were related to someone who lived in Texas. It almost made it a real place.

We had a second cousin in Michigan, too. She always arrived with a full complement of Barbie dolls and exotic Barbie doll clothes whenever her family came back to visit (coming back to visit was what a lot of people who had gone "away" did, and did frequently, in lieu of more exciting travel options.) This is the cousin with whom we played Our Barbies Are Witches Who Can Make Their Boyfriends Clean House.

Photos of birthday parties from my young years are full of sisters, cousins, and a few non-relative friends. Weddings, which were a major form of social entertainment in the summers, were always large affairs because everyone was related to everyone else, and so everyone had to be invited. One cousin managed to marry a man with an equally large and mostly non-overlapping extended family-and-friends network, and their wedding list topped out at around 500 souls. The usual two sittings of family-style dinner service at the fire hall were not enough - it took three sittings to feed everyone, and some people had not eaten until well after the dancing had begun.

I moved away from, out of my web of sisters and cousins when I went off to college. I missed family reunions, weddings, births, First Communions, school plays - shared events and rituals of daily life that bonded us all together. I built a different kind of life for myself and it has been a satisfying one but I often miss that sense of connection and shared life experiences that made life growing up a cozy and comfortable (if often stifling as well) existence.

In recent years I have reconnected with some of my cousins. Much as we sometimes had to re-learn our names and relationships to each other at family reunions, in our adult life we have begun relearning what we can mean to each other. Sharing elder care experiences, in some cases, has been a trigger for a deeper bonding with a few.

All these cousins were in our lives because sisters in the generation(s) preceding ours had lived near one another and/or made the effort to stay in touch with extended family through reunions and visits back to "the old home place". For the third day of Christmas, I'll be mediating on those wonderful women - the aunts and the great-aunts.

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On The First Day Of Christmas: Memories of Mom

I wrapped a package of two books for a little nine-year-old girl yesterday: The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Island of the Blue Dolphins, two favorites from my younger days. There was always a book under the tree for me at Christmas time, and it was nice to pass along that memory and tradition. It was a treat to spend part of Christmas Eve with the enthusiastic young recipient of the books. She was quite absorbed with tracking Santa's progress on her iPad, dialing up his voicemail message, and checking and rechecking her naughty or nice level using a "finger scan" app. All of this brought to mind the letter to Santa I had written when I was nine, and that my mother so faithfully saved for so many years.

The little girl last night got an American Girl doll, much fancier than any doll I had ever known as a child. But the thrill and joy and wrap-around hugs lavished on the doll, and worries about what to name her, were all familiar. I remember the Christmas that Santa brought my "big baby doll", after mom and I had carefully looked her over in a toy store. I had not dared to hope for such a lovely baby doll but there she was on Christmas morning, wrapped in a soft pink blanket with a big pink satin bow. How I cried when I could not retie the bow properly, and how happy I was when mom made it all nice again for me!

My big baby doll (saved for me by mom, too), sans the long-gone pink satin ribbon.

There was another Christmas when my very best gift came in a black plastic garbage bag, because it was too big and bulky for mom to wrap properly. It was a brand new coat! In those days, I rarely got a new coat. There was an older sister ahead of me whose hand-me-downs were readily available. And if her wardrobe did not suffice, there were always the frequent donations from a better-off branch of cousins. They seemed to get new clothes every other day, and to stop wearing them when they got bored with them, rather than when they were torn, stained, or worn beyond repair. But this Christmas I got a brand new coat of my own. A "fur" coat, spotted like a leopard, with a hood trimmed in more brown "fur". I remember opening the bag, peering inside, shrieking with delight and immediately shutting the bag again - I could not believe it was true. I peeked in again and it was! it was true! If I had that coat in my possession still I would make a pillow out of it.

When I think of the book under the tree each year, and the amazing fur coat in a trash bag, I think that my mother saw me - saw me, her fifth of six children, the middle of three daughters, as a unique person with individual preferences and desires and needs. She was often overwhelmed, always overworked and tired and stressed, always trying to stretch an inadequate budget to feed and clothe her large brood of often ungrateful kids. She was not in any way a perfect mother - is there such a thing? - and she was not my friend, in the way that it seems to me the ideal of modern motherhood is often portrayed. But she loved each of us fiercely, loved each of us as her own and for our own selves. I was lucky to be so loved.


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