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At age 9, I started defining my life by school. At that point, summers become blurred and relatively irrelevant for the duration of my life, and school became my defining time for that, and the ensuing, years. My life began in September and was put on “pause” for  the summer from then on (even today).

I was in Tackett Creek Elementary’s fourth grade class then, with my teacher being Miss Beamer. Miss Beamer was the first teacher I remember ever having who was young and attractive – somehow the adjective “pretty” doesn’t come to mind, but “attractive.” She had dark hair (sort of auburn as I recall), dressed very young (flowery, youthful dresses with big, full skirts), was agile in her moves, and had an “attractive” face, freckled a bit as I recall. The boys started flocking to this teacher unlike any other I’d had before.

Speaking of boys, I also had my first stirrings of “love” at age 9. I recall being in love with three boys, all named “Steve,” all at once. “Steve” must have been a popular name in the late 1940s when I was born because there were so many of them. There were several “Karens,” too; and I recall being in a classroom with three of us named “Karen” at some point.

I was also starting to grow tall and awkward, starting to be taller than many of the other kids and than most girls. I was, from then on, a “tall girl” (a fate worse than death in the ’50s for a girl) – even worse, a “tall girl” with glasses (horrors). However, I was so competitive and so interested in new discoveries at age 9 that I was not distressed then about my physical development – I think that distress didn’t start until age 10 or so.

We 4th, 5th, and 6th graders were from then on put in “portables,” which I didn’t like. Only the 1st-3rd graders remained in the lovely ancient brick building – the older  kids had to be in portables through 6th grade.

My most important awakening at age 9 was that I finally discovered that I had a brain. And, when I made that discovery, it became the only competitive partof my personality for the duration of my life. Girls had no real athletic opportunities at all, so academic competition was my only competitive outlet. I realized I could do my multiplication tables and long division fast so as to win drills; had an innate knack for spelling, rarely missing a beat; memorize easily and simply remember everything- and we engaged in constant “races” in academics, so I had proof of all  this! I could look at a page of material for  a few minutes and remember it word-for-word (a skill I lost over the years!) – what the teacher dubbed a “photographic memory,” which I later read was more common among children this age than I realized. It made me feel special all of a sudden, though I later found out I was not really special – just focused and pretty normal in terms of developmental stages.  Additionally, I was still at an age when I could run pretty well, too – so at recess I could still hold my own in playground races.

One random memory I have that I think happened that year (or maybe at age 8, unclear) was my “feed-sack dress.” It was common then for us to have clothing made out of colorful feed sacks – no big deal. My mother made me one that I loved in particular out of bright red (my favorite color) print feed sack, with green rick-rack trim.  One of the greatest mysteries of my life is this: How on earth did someone else have the very same dress on the very same day I first proudly wore mine to school?  How did someone else’s mother use the same print with the same pattern to make the same dress?  I recall  being totally flummoxed by this…or did I dream it? I’ll never know. But it was one of the great, unexplained coincidences of my life!

I also remember being disappointed that I couldn’t join the Brownie/Girl Scouts (it was either in 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grade, not sure) because we couldn’t afford the uniform (no big deal, just a fact, but a disppointment I do remember). That’s the first time I recall being limited by money – but it wasn’t unusual. Most of us were in the same boat, I’d think. Instead, I ended up joining the 4-H Club because we didn’t need a uniform for that. And, in 4-H, I learned to cook (potato salad and cookies) and sew (a pin cushion and maybe an apron or something), so it was a good thing. I also got to go to sleepover camp (more on that for age 10).

I became a “safety patrol,” my one “uniformed” role in life, my one  “paramilitary” experience (in child-like memory). I got to wear a white over-the-breast, diagonal “belt” with a red lieutenant’s, then blue “captain’s” (promoted) badge and to boss kids around on the playground and in the halls. This bossiness fit well with my newfound competitiveness and  sense of self – plus, it fit with being the oldest child of three and my penchant for “taking over” as a pretend parent. I probably would have done quite well in the military or police force! In sum, being a patrol, particularly an “officer,” gave me a tremendous sense of importance. I could “protect” kids in the swings and on the slide by enforcing safety rules, while also feeling important enforcing school rules in the halls and on the school bus. My first true “petit official” experience!

I also made one the most important discoveries of my life that year – or I think it was that year. Memory may be unclear here. It was the public library. I don’t remember a public school library for elementary school – but I do remember that at some point my father (I believe he was the one) took me  to a new library that opened in St. Albans in town across the street from the super market. That first library was in a little gray, kind of ramshackle house – and it became my favorite place in the whole wide world (aside from my grandparents’ old “log house” up on Middle Fork…more on that later). We also had a “bookmobile” come near our house – I couldn’t wait for those visits and going into that cramped vehicle to find my treasures.

I remember Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped being the first book I checked out – and my world all of a sudden expanded exponentially,  never to be limited to St. Albans or even West Virginia again. Kidnapped took me to worlds I’d never known, to people I dreamed about, to adventures, to…..everything I could never have imagined before. We had gotten a TV when I was five, but TV never quite took me to other worlds in the same way books did. The rest of my life became puncuated by whatever library was closeby – today the library is still my heaven, my solace. I also remember at some point a new library being built in St. Albans (it still stands) and the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, coming to town to dedicate it. That would have been a few years later.

Kidnapped, though, was the first of hundreds of books I was to read as the years went on – very much “the classics,” which I also read in “classical comic books” at the grocery store when my parents were shopping. In fact, I enjoyed reading the comic book versions, summaries of the real books, then following up with the complete books. I also started seeing movies on TV that I liked, then checking out the books they were based on and reading them. The movies enabled me to visualize the book characters as the actors who portrayed them, making them even more real to me.

One 4th grade project also stands out: Being assigned to go out one weekend and find leaves from different trees, pressing them in waxed paper, and labeling them. To this day, I say that, if I’d been channeled more toward science (as girls weren’t – more on that in high school years), I probaby would have chosen botany. I still love identification of plants (including trees) and love all plant life – a lifelong love that seemed to start with that project.

As usual, I’m sure I’ll think of things later that will update this part of my biographical blog…but, for now…..on to age 10!

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Briefly, I saw two great films yesterday – from Sweden, “Everlasting Memories,” which was lovely, engaging, etc. 

However, even better – from Russia, “12,” a remake of the classic 1957 American film, “12 Angry Men;” but I think this Russian version is even better. “12” was written/directed/acted by the great film-maker, Nikita Mikhalkov,  who also made ” Burnt by the Sun,” another amazing film and favorite of mine. Fantastic film, tour-de-force performances, very moving. Highly recommended!

I’ve written before on this blog about why I don’t like Easter – in summary:

  • So many “strangers” (the “C&E” – Christmas and Easter – people in “my” church), who never appear any other time and who vanish into thin air until the next Easter (or maybe Christmas – they never seem to be the same people to me). I know, I know….it’s probably good that they come at all, but I still find it invasive.

From childhood (in the ’50s):

  • Scratchy (always new) crinoline slips
  • “Spring coats” and airy dresses (always new) that felt cold on inevitably too-chilly Easter Sundays – I remember most always feeling cold all day.**
  • Pinchy (always new) patent leather shoes with little thin (and not warm) pastel or white “anklet” socks
  • Silly, frilly (always new) “Easter bonnets” that made me feel utterly ridiculous (and that, thankfully, vanished, with their flowers and berries and leaves and gauze, as soon as I got home after the morning service, never to be worn again).

So the memories of those Easters still make me simply not like Easter. But today I thought of more than that.

Someone the other day posed the question, rather rhetorically, “Why on earth do they call it ‘Good Friday’ when there’s nothing good about it?” Then the same person also asked, “Why do they call it ‘Holy Week’ when there’s nothing ‘holy’ about that?” I’d never asked, but I’d always instinctively and silently felt the same questions, but not in so many words, in my head.

Now, I’m the biggest Christmas person on earth – I live for fall and the onset of Advent and the entire Christmas season. I’m the only one on my block who leaves up the clear, white, twinkling, tiny Christmas lights on the bushes and trees in front of my house – all year – because I simply can’t let go of Christmas! I can’t argue the hypocrisy of bunnies and chicks and Easter eggs and all that vast commercialization when I applaud all things Santa Claus and Christmas tree and lights and sappy TV dramas and songs….on and on. Yes, I’m a huge and vociferous critic of hypocrisy and can root it out in others quickly – but I also can discern and judge it in myself just as brutally. I’m a huge hypocrite when it comes to disliking Easter’s trappings but obsessively loving all-things-Christmas.

This morning, however, after hearing those questions posed by a friend, I thought more about Easter and “why I won’t go to church today.”***** I think a lot of my rationale centers around torture.

Christ was not the first torture victim, but a torture victim he was. That’s why the names “Holy Week” and “Good Friday” always ring hollow for me – those times are neither “holy” nor “good” to me. I see blood and sweat and tears on Easter as the backdrop – and as the backdrop for the entire season. (Advent and Christmas, on the other hand, are a joyous time of birth to me.)

Yet the same “C&E” people can come out and, at least  superficially, ignore the violence of the  time, just as so many ignore the violence of wars, of torture, of guns-in-America.

A few years ago, a film called “The Passion of the Christ” apparently shocked people with its violence, and Christians were all  rushing to pay for their tickets and enrich the film makers (and Mel Gibson) – it became kind of “un-Christian” not to see it. I found it hard to answer “Did you see it?” with “No, I haven’t – and I don’t plan to.” I felt like a “Christian outcaste.” So….I finally went to see it just to find out what all the hysteria was about. My reaction: How could anyone be surprised or shocked by this? Wasn’t this what it was all about? What was new? The film reflected what I’d always perceived Easter to be all about – and I didn’t need what, to me,  was a kind of profit-inspired “violence pornography” to know about what Easter was. In fact, I regretted enriching the film makers by purchasing a ticket for what I felt was rank  exploitation of the otherwise well-meaning faithful.

Now, yes, I know, I know: Easter is the day celebrating Resurrection, or renewed hope, of promise – all that. But, somehow, the sheer violence of this season overshadows all  that in my own psyche. I envision Christ on the cross suffering – as all human beings do every day. I also envision Him carrying that cross through the streets in great agony. I often say that I never understood fully the precious words, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….” until I had my own son. When I realized the import of that sacrifice, as a parent, I wept hot and painful tears of understanding, an epiphany if you will. So I do understand all that “good stuff” about Easter. yes, I do “get it,” to apply today’s vernacular.

But, still….we (myself included) celebrate a holiday but too often fail to put together the torture, the suffering of Christ with the ongoing torture and the suffering of human beings today.

Now, call me spiritually bankrupt on this issue, but that’s my “take” on it after 61 Easters.  So I’m not going to church today – for all the above.

____________________

***In the 50s, we girls could never wear “pants” of any kind to school or to church but had to suffer in coldness. When we wore “leggings” only on the coldest of winter days, we had to wear them under our dresses and take them off in our school cloakrooms before entering class – in public school, no less! And, because we were too young for panythose (those dreaded torture devices hadn’t been invented yet), and “tights” (another torture device, but warmer and a little more durable than pantyhose) hadn’t yet been marketed to young girls, we were essentially cold from the tops of our anklets (or knee socks, only available later) to our underwear – that’s a lot of cold, cold leg we had to endure! This was all dictated by fundamentalist Christianity (and culture) and the fact that girls would (so I heard) burn in hell for wearing pants of any kind. The Taliban must have taken a few cues from ’50s America! Just one more reason I find the Christian right so very scary – I’ve lived in the world they want to take us back to.

*****In fact, two good films (one Russian, one Scandinavian) are playing at two different  Ritz theaters in Philadelphia today, and I’ve carefully calculated how I can “run” from one to the other quickly because the timing will probably allow just enough time for that, plus my mandatory popcorn purchase. And I’ll be very happy not to be at any church today.

The Chester County Peace Movement (CCPM) has held a weekly peace vigil every Saturday for 6-1/2 years – rain, snow, hot sun, whatever, every single Saturday except one, the Saturday after the November 2008 election. We have never failed to be at the corner of High and Market at the Courthouse from 11-12 every Saturday, come what may.

Since the election of President Barack Obama, peace groups nationally have discussed how to proceed – now that the lawless, senseless, violent, super-warlike past eight years have ended. Some stopped their vigils. We chose  not to.

However, this week we came as close as we have ever come to ending these vigils – with my full complicity. 

I returned from London with some fresh insights about a lot of things that made me question the wisdom of continuing our vigils. One experience was looking down on the thousands of G-20 protestors in London from the top of a red double-decker London bus and not feeling like I really wanted to join in. Had I burned out? Was I feeling apathetic? Or what? I thought, “What’s the point here?” I was simply thrilled that we had an intelligent leader in Europe – that we had come out of a horrid wilderness – so the G-20 demonstrations were, to me, trying to burst my bubble. I was almost annoyed with them for raining on America’s beautiful parade.

When I returned to the states last week,  several things prompted me to propose that we end our vigils – and I almost announced that we would do so.

Until I went to this morning’s vigil. In the cold and consistent pouring rain, a small band of us “regulars” stood in a circle and discussed ending the vigils for an hour and fifteen minutes, non-stop. Apparently, I really shocked some of them by even suggesting such a thing as ending the vigils. The conversation it mostly involved impassioned pleas by several of our group that, in sum, “war continues, people are still dying, we must be here because we haven’t finished yet.”  It didn’t take long to convince me – I’d been at that level of commitment all along but had not fully realized the total commitment of others, which impressed and moved me deeply. This little band of loyalists is prepared to stand on that corner every Saturday indefinitely – and I am, too. They brought me back to my senses, and I thank them for that.

As we sang our usual “We Shall Overcome” (sans instruments, too wet for our usual musical accompaniment), observed our moment of silence, and made the usual announcements,  two things happened that assured me that it’s the right decision to stay there:  A young woman drove up in her car and flashed a big smile and a peace sign at us, then pulled off; and another passer-by yelled out, “Thank you!” a thanks we have heard so many times over these years from so many people.  And I told the group about a young college  student who wrote to me the other day asking if she could do an internship working with us this summer – a young woman who came to our peace vigils while in high school studies. And I thought of all the other young people who have joined us, who have been with us at so many times over these years. And we discussed how these vigils bring us all together in one place every week, come what may, even if we don’t come together otherwise. We are family.

So how could we stop?

We can’t.

And we won’t.

These are just a few random “spring signs” I want to memorialize here, the things that stand out to me every spring on West Rosedale:

Starburst magnolias punctuating the still-barren woods in mid-April. There are about three of them in the woods behind the house, and their white flowers are the only “new life” on the trees for about a week or so every spring. “Punctuate” is the best verb I can think of using here – they are like punctuation marks in the woods – splotches of white amongs the still-brown woods long before the tree leaves come out.

Little birds on the deck, all colors. They start hopping around on the deck now and are so cute. Little yellow ones, little brown ones. The red cardinals precede them a bit by being the only splotches of color back in the wintry brown woods before spring. But now the other little ones start appearing and hopping around on the deck, such a delight to watch!

Rabbits. I don’t know why I absolutely squeal with delight every time I see a rabbit, but I do. I never fail to marvel at the cuteness of rabbits. They are a delight, one of spring’s gifts.

Yellow flowers nestled in their green leaves in the woods, along the creek, in the yard. I don’t know the name of this plant, but you see them in Chester County a lot this time of year. They are one of the first “wild” signs of spring, and I delight in them every year as I see them appear out back – down by the creek and on the woods floor. They are low plants with soft green leaves and lovely buttercup-yellow flowers. The flowers don’t last long, disappearing in about a week’s time and leaving behind their green beds. I look forward to them every year.

Dogwoods starting to bud. The dogwoods out in the front yard start to bud this time of  year. The leaves are plushy little buds now, and they will come our rather slowly – a sure sign of spring. There are two white dogwoods in front and a lovely pink one in back (I planted all of them years ago). Another sure sign of spring.

The dogwood brings to mind the “legend of the dogwood,” and every time I see the dogwood blossoms (as this morning), I think of their supposed symbolism. Here’s something I found about that:

“The Bible does not tell us what type of wood the cross Jesus was crucified on was made of. Roman history does not go into specifics as to how the crosses were made or what type of wood was used. There is a legend that the cross was made of dogwood. This is unlikely considering the typical size of a dogwood tree. The legend of the dogwood tree, author unknown, is as follows:

“In Jesus’ time, the dogwood grew
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
‘Twas strong and firm it’s branches interwoven
For the cross of Christ its timbers were chosen.
Seeing the distress at this use of their wood
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
“Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so.
Slender and twisted, it shall be
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.
As blood stains the petals marked in brown
The blossom’s center wears a thorny crown.
All who see it will remember Me
Crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree.
Cherished and protected, this tree shall be
A reminder to all of my agony.”

“Again, this is just a legend. It is a nice poem, but there is no biblical basis to it.”

Even so, it’s what I think of when I see the dogwood blossoms in my yard.

Spring rain. A reader of a previous blog noted, about my comments about not preferring summer, that summer was always, to him, like a party to which he was not invited. I loved that – it says what I feel about summer. But I’ll extend that to sunny days – for some reason, I actually prefer days of precipitation – snow, rain; especially snow. Spring rain, such as we had this weekend, is comforting to me. I still love snow the best, but rain comes in second – although that’s not to say that I don’t love sunny days and appreciate their beauty. Even so, rainy days are always the days when I have the perfect excuse to stay inside and read, which is always more important and more enjoyable to me than outside stuff (except for woods walks, hikes, etc.). So spring rain is one of my favorite things. Spring rain also brings to mind my son’s birthday  – he was born in April. The day I went to the hospital was, as I recall, sunny. And I’m not sure what the weather was like for those couple of days there, but it appeared gray outside my hospital window. And I took him home to rainy spring days – so I have very delicious memories of those days, those rainy spring days that I first shared with my beloved son. Rain means renewal to me. It brings a freshness in spring, it moistens the earth. I don’t like mud for dog-walking (when they and I track it into the house), but otherwise I do like muddy earth – wet earth in which things will grow. So I love spring rain for many reasons. It’s one of my very favorite things.

Amazing! I thought our London Guards Hotel at Lancaster Gate, London, seemed familiar. I had seen a great film a year or so ago – “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont,” with Joan Plowright playing a lovely English widow who moved into a London hotel to start a new and independent (and lonely at first) life.

Well, I borrowed the film from the library and just watched it. The “Claremont Hotel” (fictional, I assume) was exactly like our hotel and was right there at Lancaster Gate – the same U-shaped street of about three blocks where our hotel was situated. In fact, the outside filming could have been of our hotel!  The inside lobby was a bit more fancy than ours – but Mrs. Palfrey’s room was very plain and unadorned, more similar to the rooms there.  And the scenes of either Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens – just what we saw there!

And this film was even better the second time around, even more moving and beautiful! And even more meaningful for the locale that grew familiar to us in London! What a treat! It was the next best thing to returning to London.

The Ritz theaters in Philadelphia are in the Society Hill historic area. There are three of them, all belonging to the same owner: The Ritz East on Second Street, the Ritz Five about two blocks away on Walnut, and the Ritz/Bourse on Fourth Street. Those theaters are like another home to me and to Louis. We started taking special trips to the Ritz when Louis was about 14. He saw his first “R” rated film there with me – “Hurricane,” the true story about the famous boxer unjustly imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, as memorialized by Denzel Washington in the film and by the great Bob Dylan song of the same name (one of my favorites). Once I took Louis there, he became a regular customer – as am I.  When he’s home for breaks, he’s at the Ritz much of the time. Great films are something we still share. We see them separately, but we can talk about them and recommend them to each other. One of the most enjoyable things I do is to spend a Saturday or Sunday to go into the Ritz and see a film – or two if there are two I’d like to see. Once in a while, I even take a vacation day just to go to the Ritz. And one day  I even was able to see three films at the three different theaters by running (literally) from one to the other quickly!  I saw “The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland,” and “A Thousand Flowers” all in one  day – and I really had to hoof it from one theater to the next to make it! What fun! Anyway, a day at the Ritz is a perfect day for me! 

Here’s a note about a nice experience at the Ritz Five in November of 2007 (written the day after): 

I took a vacation day yesterday to do one of my favorite things – a long, slow drive into Philadelphia (on a deliciously foggy day!) to two Ritz Theaters to see a couple of movies. (“No Country for Old Men” – superbly crafted, fabulously acted, but too-too violent for my taste; “Michael Clayton” – also superbly crafted, fabulously acted – by George Clooney – great suspense, better for my taste. Both highly recommended – if you can stomach the violence in the first one – sort of “Fargo” on steroids, actually by the same folks who made “Fargo.”)

 Had about an hour between films, sitting in the lobby with my cranberry muffin and coffee. My first conversation was with a very tiny proudly-81-year-old woman with a snow-white bob, smartly dressed, who “comes into Philly about 3 times a week from Ardmore.”  She was waiting to see “Lars and the Real Girl,” a Scandinavian comedy.  She said she takes the bus from Ardmore, sees films at least once a week, was going to the opera after the movies, was going to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra rehearse the next day – she told me all about the Hispanic actor, Javier Bardem, who played the psychopathic villain in “No Country for Old Men,” all his movies in great detail – she really knew her movies!!!  What a lady!  Just hearing about all her activities almost wore me out!  I asked her how she stays so young and vital and energetic – “I walk a LOT,” she said.  She said she’d never stopped walking her entire life and told me, “Do everything you can while you can – do  it all while you can!”  Then she disappeared into the theater to see her comedy.

 Then came another lady, who sat down exactly where the first one had been sitting.  This one was taller, quite svelte, with a cute guy-type short white haircut.  Quite stylishly dressed.  Lives on the Parkway near the Art Museum, she told me, in an apartment complex I know not to be exactly low- or middle-income (upscale).  She was adorable.  She was there to see “Into the Wild” (which I highly recommend to anyone, one of my all-time favorite films). She said, very proudly, all of a sudden, “It’s my birthday today….” paused….”How old?” (I think she wanted me to ask).  “78. I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far.”  Again, I inquired, “How do you stay so youthful, so wonderful-looking, so energetic?”  “I walk a lot,” she said. “I’ve walked everywhere all my life,” and she told me how she goes to Fairmount Park all the time just to walk – and where the best walk is, and where she walks in Center City. She said she’d had a birthday lunch that day, a birthday dinner the night before – and the trip to the Ritz was her birthday present to herself (which I told her I do for me, too, on birthdays,  Christmas, just any tme I want to be good to myself).  And she said, “Do everything you can while you can.” 

 

I will. And I hope you do, too.  These ladies were there to remind me (and all of us) about that.  What a treat they both were!