Revised post: Survival Stories Inspire Us

I’ve always loved to read.  I completed every story in my elementary school reader (you must remember those) in a week.  We weren’t supposed to read ahead, but I couldn’t wait! For me, words are manna from heaven—both the written and the spoken.

When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher had us keep a card file with a small book review of every book we read that year.  I kept up my card file until I went to college. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it after that.  Fortunately, one of my sons-in-law gave me a book journal for Christmas in 1999.  I filled it up in a year, and then started a new card file based on the journal format.  Now I have a record of twelve years’ worth of books!

Eloise May Library

Two years ago, our local branch of the Arapahoe Library District moved from a small space on the third floor of a local government building to a new building two miles from our house.  Once it was so close, Dave and I made a pledge to stop buying books and start borrowing them.  Neither of us has ever had trouble finding a book to read in this library branch. We keep lists of favorite authors and new book titles, but we also have found authors unknown to us on the May’s library shelves. I have also requested books for us, even though we sometimes wait a month or two for a best seller. Every visit to the library is an adventure for us, searching the shelves for the right book that will provide us hours and hours of reading pleasure.

Dave urged me to publish my book reviews for many years, but I didn’t know where I could do it until I started blogging and using Facebook.  I’ve done two reviews on this blog and a few on Facebook, but I decided to make book reviews a regular blog feature. So, let me begin with two of my favorite recent reads…

Alexandra Fuller (Bo Fuller) at cabin near Pinedale, Wyoming. Offhand decor includes an even mix of African and cowboy artifacts. CREDIT: David J Swift

This summer I stumbled upon the author Alexandra Fuller in the book review section of The Denver PostShe had written a book about growing up in Africa.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

Alexandra Fuller (nicknamed Bobo) lived in Africa from 1972 until 1994. Her parents lived in Kenya and then Rhodesia before she was born, beginning their family with her sister, Vanessa, and a brother who died from meningitis in his infancy. Unlike her older siblings, Bobo was born in England, where her mother retreated to recover her health and give birth to Bobo.

Before Bobo arrived in Africa, the Fullers acquired their own ranch Rhodesian ranch where they could grow most of their food and run some sheep and horses.  Unfortunately for them, after a few years of ranching, a civil war interrupted their lives.  Bobo’s father joined the white colonial army, fighting unsuccessfully against the black Rhodesians.

When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the Fullers lost their home and began a peripatetic lifestyle fraught with deprivation: poverty, homelessness, hunger, danger and illness.  They moved from Zimbabwe to Malawi and finally to Zambia, running from conflicts and hellish conditions. The family lost two more children, numerous pets, livestock and land.  Bobo’s mother fought depression constantly, but her condition worsened with alcoholism. She displayed manic episodes as well and became unpredictable.

Bobo wrote this 2001 memoir based on her childhood memories. She uses a light and humorous touch as she describes learning to load and shoot a gun and riding in the family truck over roads that could be mined. I was captivated, as well as appalled, at the conditions this family endured, but their love for Africa was clear.  Bobo’s irrepressible spirit and her family’s indomitable pluckiness shine through their troubles.  I couldn’t put down this fascinating book.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

The sequel to this book was published this year, a few months after I read the first memoir.  After Nicola, Alexandra Fuller’s mother, read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she condemned it as “that awful book.”  She didn’t like her one-dimensional portrayal. She made the point when she told her daughter, “You don’t know me, and you don’t know anything about me.”  The book was written from a child’s memories of her parents.

For Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller listened repeatedly to hours and hours of family interview tapes and tackled her second book as portrait of her mother.  In a New York Times review she is quoted, “This book is my love story to (my mother).  Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight was a love story to place.”

There is no question that this portrayal of both the Fuller parents comes across differently, especially for Nicola.  She is a vulnerable woman who overcomes her depression with resolve and comes to terms with her losses through self-acceptance and forgiveness.  As a reader, I grew to admire Nicola and Tim Fuller for their courage, self-sacrifice and ability to build themselves the life they always wanted.  There is no doubt that the star of Cocktail Hour is always Nicola–and Africa.

Nicola Fuller pulled herself together and taught her daughters to make the best of their situations.  She cultivated their artistic and literary gifts and inspired them to endure.  Vanessa still lives in Africa and is the mother of several children. She is also a graphic and textile artist. Alexandra went to college in Nova Scotia and met her American husband there.  They live in Wyoming with their two children. Cocktail Hour is her fourth book.

Both of these memoirs are beautifully written, but Cocktail Hour has a compact, spare quality that is powerful as well as eloquent.  It is also laced with humor, a quality the Fullers must possess in triplicate to have survived their African troubles.

I close with some favorite passages from each book.

Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight: “What I can’t know about Africa as a child … is her smell; hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.”               

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness:  “No one starts a war warning that those involved will lose their innocence—that children will definitely die and be forever lost as a result of the conflict; that the war will not end for generations and generations, even after cease-fires have been declared and peace treaties have been signed. No one starts a war that way, but they should.  It would at least be fair warning and an honest admission:  even a good war—if there is such a thing—will kill anyone old enough to die.”                                                     

RELATED ARTICLES

▪    Running From Grief (seattleweekly.com)

▪    Books of The Times: A Mother’s Long Love Affair With Colonialism (nytimes.com)

▪    Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller: review (telegraph.co.uk)

Another favorite book about an African childhood, this time in Kenya.

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

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Remembering Roy D. Harris–On His 100th Birthday August 25, 1911-December 14, 1997

This post is abstracted from the Preface of my as of yet unpublished book Uncommon Valor.  I have used information from an unpublished autobiography of Marshall Harris and a biographical sketch written by Roy Harris.

Roy David Harris Memorial Album

My father, Roy David Taylor Harris, was born in Pindall, Arkansas, on August 25, 1911, 100 years ago.   His two middle names honored his paternal grandfather, a Methodist preacher from southern Illinois.  He was the oldest of two sons and one daughter born to William and Julia Harris.

When William Harris found steady employment with the Great Northern Railroad, his small family lived in a boxcar while he worked as an expert cement finisher on a bridge construction crew.  The boxcar was fitted out as living quarters that had to be packed up tightly whenever it relocated to a new job site up or down the tracks from Illinois to North Dakota.  In spite of how well Julia packed the cabinets, inevitably some dishes flew out of the cupboards and crashed onto the floor.  Roy recalled playing alongside and inside the railroad tracks as a toddler.  In fact, this was his earliest memory.  The boxcar home became more crowded when Marshall Fields Harris was born in 1913.  A sister, Emily Ruth, was born in 1924, after the family had settled down to farming.

Once Roy and Marshall were school age, William and Julia realized that their gypsy lifestyle had to end.  After renting several small farms in southern Illinois, they bought their own farm in Dorchester, Illinois, near the state’s border with Missouri.  This farm was surrounded by six acres of rich, fertile soil.  William loved gardening, so he established a large garden that provided vegetables, berries and peanuts.  They had a cow for milk and dairy products, chickens for their eggs and fried chicken dinners, and hogs for meat and sausage.  William also raised bees and Julia raised parakeets.  To subsidize the farm’s income, William returned to work for the Great Northern, this time laboring in their coalmines.  Once the brothers were old enough, they also helped on the farm and hired themselves out to work for other farmers.  Although the Harris family had little disposable income, and only a small savings account, their farm kept them well fed, even during the Great Depression.

Recalling his childhood, Roy remembered camping trips with his family.  In those days cars were unreliable and cranky, so trips on undeveloped and dangerous roads included several unexpected stops along the way to fix the car.  Nevertheless, Roy spoke fondly and humorously about these adventures, as well as the campfires and the stories told under the stars.

He also recounted tales of the mischief the two brothers dreamed up.  One of those stories involved catching unwary drivers in a hole the two of them enlarged in the road after a rainstorm.  The boys would hide, waiting for someone driving too fast or not paying attention, to become stuck in the hole.  The boys would conveniently appear, offering to help free the frustrated driver.   Invariably, the grateful victim would give them a few cents as a reward for helping.  As soon as the car was out of the way, they would hide again, awaiting the next unlucky automobile.  A day spent as “Good Samaritans” could net some candy money at least!  Eventually word traveled into town about the “helpful boys” and the hole in the road.  Their Dad immediately ended this profitable enterprise.  In addition to adventures and misadventures, the horses, geese, cows, barn cats and dogs provided tales of a pleasant and loving rural Illinois farm life.

With a large extended family in and around Dorchester, Shipman and Bunker Hill, as well as an active church life, relatives and friends socialized a lot.  Cousins became best friends, and there were several good neighbors on the nearby farms.  Roy knew a number of immigrant families during his childhood in the southern Illinois.  Many of them were not new immigrants, but they still spoke their native languages at home.   He remembered that the local Methodist church offered German language services while he was a child.  A search of the census records reveals surnames from Italy, Bohemia and Scandinavia. Besides the Methodist church, there was a busy Catholic church as well.

Roy and Marshall began school together due to the years spent in the boxcar.  Despite their 23-month age difference, they remained in the same class throughout their public school days.  Since they attended a small country school with several grades mixed together, wide age differences were not uncommon.

Julia and William recognized that a good education would broaden their opportunities, so they provided some financial help to their sons when they enrolled at McKendree College, a small Methodist school in Lebanon, Illinois.   It took them over six years to graduate from college because they had to take time off in order to earn additional money for their books, room and board.  Gerald Harris, their cousin and the assistant pastor of a St. Louis Methodist church, was also the administrator of Goodwill Industries in the St. Louis, Missouri area.  Besides helping Gerald set up the church for services, teaching Sunday school and providing janitorial services, the Harris brothers worked as solicitors for Goodwill.  This required traveling to other states in the summer to arrange for and collect donations.

After college graduation, Roy and Marshall headed to St. Louis.  While Marshall started work in a bank, Roy followed his interest in electronics and machinery.  He found a job as a motor tester with Emerson Electrics until the factory had a labor cutback and he was laid off.   During visits back home, several people approached Roy about becoming a teacher and principal of a small two-room school in a nearby town.  He accepted the job, attending Southern Illinois University in the summers to obtain necessary teaching credentials.

In 1940 Marshall Harris married and joined the Navy, moving to San Diego.  In 1941, after a few years of teaching, Roy decided that he would not renew his contract when it ended.  The world was changing.  Hitler was marching unimpeded throughout Europe while draft notices were arriving in young American men’s mailboxes.  Expecting a draft notice, Roy

a choice about his branch of service.  After investigating the training possibilities, he chose the Army Air Corps because they assured him he would be assigned to Scott Field in Illinois.  They also promised him training in radio communication, one of his great interests.  Rumors of a girl friend in his hometown may have influenced his desire to stay nearby.  However, the promise of remaining in Illinois proved to be untrue, as did the radio training, when he was notified just a few days after signing his enlistment papers, that he would be sent to Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado.  Roy’s disappointment with his reassignment faded as he first viewed the Rocky Mountain backdrop from the train window.  The sudden appearance of the mountain range rising up from the plains captured his heart and never let go.

There was another benefit of this new training field–Roy discovered how interesting armaments could be.  The classes involved both manual and hands-on learning with generators, bomb racks, propellers and machine guns.  Roy was very successful during the training and graduated at the top of his class.  He also demonstrated leadership skills and was asked to become an instructor of the power turrets class.  Because power turrets were a new invention, Roy and the other instructors had to design the course of study and test questions from manuals and their own experiences during training.  The intellectual challenge was stimulating, and the opportunity to work with new machinery and technology exciting, so Roy was pleased with this new adventure.

There were many advantages to becoming an instructor.  He liked the teaching, he was now a sergeant with a technical degree and his pay was better than what he had been making as a civilian.  Additionally, he was not subject to bed checks, K.P. or any other duties—and he had Sundays off!  On his first free Sunday, he headed right to the place where he felt most at home, the nearest Methodist Church.

Within a few weeks, Roy met Betty Rockfield, an elementary school teacher and the woman who would become his wife.  Their “official” introduction occurred at a special Halloween party Betty planned for military men and other young adults attending Warren Methodist Church.  Before the night was over, Roy asked her out on a bowling date.  By St. Valentine’s Day they were engaged.  They were married in a hurry-up formal wedding on 9 May 1942, just before Roy was shipped off to Officer Candidates’ School in Miami Beach.

Betty followed Roy to Miami Beach when the school year ended in June.  The officer candidates’ wives were billeted in luxury hotels along the beach and were able to see their husbands on weekends.   Betty spent her time getting to know the wives and exchanging recipes with them, playing bridge and ironing Roy’s shirts.  By early September 1942 she was back home and teaching again.

Roy and his fellow officers shipped out to England, then Scotland and on to North Africa.  Roy spent World War II serving in the Mediterranean Theater as an armament officer for a light bombardment group.  He moved from North Africa to Sicily, Corsica and Italy.  He also spent time in France and Germany during the Battle of the Bulge.  Roy and Betty did not see each other again until July 1945.

Roy and Betty had two daughters, Mary Julia and Elizabeth Ann, born fourteen months apart (1947 and 1948).  The family lived in Denver, Colorado.  Betty was a teacher and school administrator.  Roy searched a while before settling on a career as purchasing agent for American Smelting & Refining Company.  In 1964 he was offered a job as head of purchasing for the entire company, requiring a move to New York City, but turned it down.  The war had drained Roy of his early ambitions.  He wanted a dependable family life, regular hours and a routine.  His Denver ASARCO job suited his post-war lifestyle choices and his orderly nature.

Besides his work, Roy enjoyed a routine in his private life.  He played volleyball every Tuesday night and exercised at a local gym two nights a week.  He loved following his favorite baseball teams (the St. Louis Cardinals and a local AAA minor league team) and football teams  (the Denver Broncos and the University of Colorado) on radio and television, sometimes using both media at the same time!  His interests also included keeping up with the latest technological advancements in radio, television and phonograph equipment.  He loved cars, keeping the family automobiles in tip-top condition.  Whenever he traded in a car, the dealership never had to clean it or tune it up.  In quieter moments, when the lawn had been cared for, household repairs made and other duties accomplished, my father would sit down with the daily newspaper, which he read cover to cover, or the most recent The Reader’s Digest.  He loved jokes, comics, word puzzles and sports stories.   He also solved the daily crossword puzzle.

Roy’s steady habits were a good antidote to Betty’s frenetic pace.  His structured days, neat habits and bookkeeping skills continued into his retirement and the years after Betty’s  1990 death. On a personal level, I found his apartment a sanctuary from my harried days of work, children and a difficult second marriage.  We drank Diet Seven-Up from glasses filled with ice, placed on neatly folded napkins and arranged on snack trays.  Around his reading lamp, with soft drinks in hand, we often discussed my mother.

All the time that he seemed to be neutral in our lives, Daddy was lending moral and emotional support to his beloved Betty.  I found evidence of his devotion in little notes and cards my mother saved throughout the years.  After she was gone, he would say, “Poor Betty, she always put making her mother proud before anything else.  She was never really happy.”  By that time I had also decided that my mother’s lifelong pattern of preoccupation with tasks outside of her domestic life had driven her into a corner from which she couldn’t escape.

During these special times with my father, politics, religion, television programs, my teenage daughters and my disintegrating marriage were also discussed and dissected.   It was then that he paid me a high compliment after my second divorce.  “Mary Julia, there is no man smart enough or good enough for you.”  I still cherish that assessment, although I did eventually find someone who met these criteria.  By the time I met and married Dave, my father had slipped into dementia.  When he died in December 1997 at the age of 86, I became a 50-year-old orphan.

I feel privileged to have spent quality time with my dad during the seven years between my mother’s and his death.  When she was alive, he seemed to sit apart from my sister and me.  Once she was gone, he established special relationships with his two daughters.  I treasure the discoveries I made about my father–his kindness, keen insights and the similarities of our values, politics and personalities.  My husband, who never knew my mother, told me that I looked much more like my dad than my mom. While searching for pictures to scan, I could see this clearly.  My sister has his wide smile.

I’m grateful for those few precious years and all that I learned about my modest, sweet and caring dad.  Finally my father stepped out of the shadows so we could become friends as well as father and daughter.

The Third Time Is A Charm

 

Dave and Mary Xmas 1994

When I told my husband that I was writing a blog post about him, he dismissed the news with, “That’s going to be very boring.  Why would anyone want to read about me?”  He liked the title, but thought a good alternative would be, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”  I have to say, that is fitting as well.

Although I’ve written several posts during the 18 months I have kept this blog, I don’t think I have given proper due to Dave Oliver.  He definitely deserves credit for everything does everyday to show his love, attention and thoughtfulness.  He sees to all the little things that make the difference—grocery shopping, vacuuming and mopping the floors, cooking and CLEANING OUR CATS’ LITTER BOXES.  Dave also steps up to help my daughters, their spouses and our grandchildren.

I mentioned in my last post [Time Tunnel] that I have been married three times.  The first marriage was in November 1968, lasting until we divorced in June 1978.   My second marriage was on the rebound.  We met at Parents Without Partners and blended our families with a wedding in June 1979.  We were not the Brady Bunch, although each of us doubled our families, including the cats!  My younger stepson described my cat as his “step-cat,” which seemed quite humorous at the time.  My second husband had two boys and I had two girls.  That marriage withstood many ups and downs, finally ending in September 1992.

I was in my middle forties in 1992, with 23 years of marital experience stretching between two marriages.  Some of my friends were also divorced by then, one of those failing at a second marriage too.  I was in psychotherapy with a skilled psychiatrist who guided me through this divorce, its aftermath and my years of self-discovery.  My daughters were happy that I was on my own, having witnessed the chaos and darkness of the past 13 years.  When they both left for college, I was living by myself for the first time in my life.   I expanded as an autonomous being—missing my children, but savoring time as my own best friend.

David Oliver and I met in November 1993 at a weekly singles group listed in the Denver Free University newsletter.  It was called The Sunday Night Club [SNC].  I enrolled in this activity along with a writing class titled “Writing the Wild Woman.”

The members of the SNC got together for activities and networking.   Like-minded people organized outings to local theater productions, salsa dancing, wine tastings, board games nights, etc.  Dave and I connected through a breakout group that loved going to the movies.  The first movie we scheduled was The Piano on the following Tuesday night at an art theater near downtown.

As luck would have it, this theater was located in the Governor’s Park neighborhood of Denver, where I had bought a condo in January 1993.

A heavy snowstorm blew in early in the afternoon, but I decided to drive to the theater and see the movie anyway, even if no one else showed up.  Three other people did arrive—Dave and a couple in a relationship.

Dave and I became a couple from that evening on because we didn’t want the conversation to end.   We set another movie date for the next Tuesday, followed by a Friday night date a few days later.  A routine quickly developed–our Tuesday movie nights, dinner with a rented movie on Friday nights, a dinner we cooked together on Saturday nights and a Sunday afternoon walk around the historic neighborhoods we shared.  We talked on the phone every night we weren’t together. This kind of friendly romance was new to me.

Dave is an architect and he taught me lots of architectural terms as we picked our favorite houses along the streets we explored.  Since I am a Denver native, I knew historic details that enhanced our growing familiarity with the beautiful old homes we admired.  My mother had grown up in this same area of Denver, so the stories she had told me became wonderful nuggets to embellish what we were learning.

Dave at Beck's birthday party July 2011

Dave and I were fortunate to live close to each other, each of us in corner condos on the ninth floor of our buildings facing west.  Dave’s condo sat on the edge of beautiful old Cheesman Park and mine overlooked the Governor’s Mansion and other notable mansions and grounds that I could see from my balcony.  We have been talking and loving movies ever since, as well as reading and discussing mysteries and history, poetry, music, our previous relationships and marriages.  In addition, we have traveled to cities all over the country to visit plantations, estates and famous homes.

For the first time in my life,  I was spending time with a man who was also a friend—who loved to talk and shared many interests with me. We had the same attitudes about politics and religion, and we agreed on ethical and moral standards–all the basics that create a strong relational foundation.  He even listened to NPR—the first of my friends who did!  He was also a Democrat!  Another plus.

My daughters loved him and he loved my daughters and their boyfriends.  He even grew to love my cats!   Eventually we decided to marry and picked the date of September 20, 1996.

When I was a young girl, I never envisioned myself in  “serial” marriages.   Although my sister’s first marriage also failed, she remained content in her second union.   By the time Dave and I married, I understood my previous failures. Both of us worked through our problems separately in therapy, combining the techniques and strategies we had learned to build a strong relational foundation.

I overheard fellow teachers at school whispering comments about me when my third wedding became public, including snickers about my name changes.   I chose to view these as sign posts denoting my growth as a human being.   I didn’t plan to explain myself and no one asked.  Only one person told me that it took courage to marry again.  Smiling, I replied that was a tribute to my extreme optimism.We have never regretted our leap of faith. Our goal is to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in 2021.  Hope all of you are there to celebrate!

Time Tunnel

On an especially hot Saturday evening a few weeks ago I had a strange experience with time traveling.  While waiting for Dave to settle in so we could watch a movie, our television happened to be tuned in to PBS during one of their interminable pledge drives.  Lawrence Welk was the featured program.  Nothing takes me back to my childhood like the champagne bubble music of Lawrence Welk!

My parents watched Lawrence Welk sometimes, enjoying the singing, dancing and staging of his numbers.  My father was especially fond of variety shows.  In fact, as long as the humor was clean and wholesome, this Illinois farm boy cum middle class urban businessman–loved anything vaguely burlesque.  Mr. Welk’s show almost fit the bill–it was squeaky clean with sanitized performers and performances.  All it lacked were skits and comedians.  This particular show was produced sometime in the late sixties or early seventies and was broadcast from a beach in Oahu.  The strong breezes played havoc with everyone’s hair; the sound engineering was clearly a nightmare.  From a hula dance to sentimental love songs to Norma singing about love lasting forever, this was a vintage Welk telecast.

The broadcast, with its perfectly matched costumes, idyllic setting and complete naivety, shot me back to my youth and early adulthood.  There was no hint on the show of the turmoil in America or anywhere else in the world, even though the controversial Vietnam conflict, with its daily count of fatalities, topped the news.   How could anyone, paying any attention at all, escape the street protests against the war, the university shutdowns over the draft, the racial tension with the rise of the Black Panthers? Somehow, Lawrence Welk and many other entertainers  of the time managed to do just that.

At this point on a Saturday night in the present, I had some kind of reality break, unlike anything I have experienced before.   I saw myself in the late 1960s—not a hippie, not a protestor, living at home with my parents while my husband was serving in the Mekong Delta.  We had married on November 9, 1968, a month before he left for Vietnam.

Mary & Rob wedding 9 Nov 1968Mary at Ola Poana Gardens, Kuaai, Hawaii 8/1969

I spent part of my senior year on campus after his departure, and the remainder at home with my parents while I completed my student teaching.  I remember being caught between several worlds—one where every minute of the war was sheer agony and death counts were personal; another where I was a daughter living at home with her doting parents; a third where I was a student on a college campus living in the dorm.

On a Friday, a week before Labor Day weekend in 1969, I boarded a plane to fly by myself to Honolulu.  My husband flew from Vietnam to Guam, and finally landed at Hickam Air Force Base.  We spent his R & R together in Hawaii—almost a full week in a tropical paradise, where we stayed in the nicest hotels and ate in the best restaurants.  The merchants, hoteliers, restaurants and businesses offered us 50% discounts throughout the islands.  From that point on I was in love with everything Hawaiian—songs, tropical scents, Asian food.   It was the paradise of young love, and loss, as he left on a bus to board the plane returning him to a jungle at war.  When Hawaii Five-O premiered on TV that fall, I wouldn’t miss an episode, especially the exciting opening with waves, surfers and the skyline of Honolulu.

Rob boating Kauai, Hawaii, 8/1969

During 1969, I did pay attention to what was happening—I hated every bit of violence perpetrated on anyone anywhere because I personalized it all.  That person had a mother, a father, a wife, a child… I voted in my first election for Hubert Humphrey while my husband voted for Richard Nixon by absentee ballot. When Rob returned from Vietnam, very thin and sick, he watched me graduate from college.  He shared his expectations and dreams with me, fueled by his year of avoiding strafing, planning bomb drops and meeting the native villagers in his town.  I knew then that I didn’t know this man, and probably never had.

Mary's graduation from college 12/1969--almost on time!

A few weeks later I left home and everything I knew—the mountain-filled horizon of Denver with all its vivid sunshine was a huge loss.  I became a part of another family in Chicago.  My mother-in-law asked me to take care of Bobby, a name I never used for him.  When I told my mother about this, thinking it was very sweet, she remarked, “I hope he is going to take care of you!”

Rob (Clark Kent) and Mary (Lois Lane) celebrating Christmas in Chicago

After celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square (NYC), my husband and I moved to Bitburg AFB in Germany.   We lived there for almost four years.  With everything different and my childhood gone, I became a young wife, a teacher and a European traveler.  As my experience broadened, I saw America from another side and I started to become an adult.  Those were exciting, frightening, eye-opening, disillusioning years that I will always treasure and would not trade.

Christmas in Berchtesgaden, zither player, Dec 1971

Our marriage did not survive our return to the United States.  We had two wonderful daughters to cherish, but civilian life and adult responsibilities did not become my husband.  He followed his own path to Florida while my daughters and I followed another back in Denver.  Our daughters grew up in the Denver Metro area, visiting their father in Fort Myers, FL, every summer.  As I wrote in an earlier post, I did mourn his death from a brain tumor in 2007, more than forty years after our first meeting in July 1967.

On this recent Saturday evening in July 2011, when Dave finally settled in, I asked him if he ever felt disconnected from the present.  Here I was, trying to figure out my new iPhone while watching Lawrence Welk. How weird is that?  We live in a world of technological wizardry, the people we were and many we knew are long gone, but somewhere in that time tunnel is a young Mary, in a very different time wearing a lei, breathing in heavy Hawaiian air, awaiting her young airman husband.  Was I ever that young?  Am I really that old?

Thank goodness Dave completely understood my strange mood.

Do we need a battle hymn to be good parents?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

All of us begin our lives as children, and we evolve into adulthood from the childhood we experienced.  The choices and decisions my parents made about discipline, religion, playtime, homework, grades, lessons outside of school, summer camp–these and more–contributed to the adult I became.  In my childhood, my grandparents and other older relatives were also influential in my attitudes and self-image.

My childhood laid the foundation for the career I chose as an elementary school teacher.  I have been around children all of my adult life—as an educator, a parent, a step-parent, and now as a grandparent.   In most ways, my life has been about guiding and teaching children and I have strong opinions about education and parenting.

A controversial book about these subjects hit the book lists this year.  It is Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.  As I avidly read this book last week, I knew my personal review had to become a blog post.  Amy Chua took a great risk writing a book comparing her commitment to Asian parenting vs. Western parenting (American parenting in particular). She points out all the ways in which American parents are more concerned with their children’s happiness and self-esteem than how well they learn and achieve.   According to the author, being number one and at the  best  at everything  are the parent’s goal for every child.  If a parent has to insult, browbeat or otherwise compel a child to practice an instrument, review for a test or rewrite an assignment, so be it.   Achievement is more important than comfort, rest or happiness.  Children owe it to their parents to become the best.

First of all, let me say this book is very well written, short book.  At times it is even humorous, to the point that I thought she was laughing at herself and would recant everything she said at the end.  She did not do so, even though one of her daughters actually rebelled and followed her own path.  Ms. Chua adopted two dogs and discovered that they were individuals and required different handling.  Ultimately, training a dog to do what that breed should do was a tenet she abandoned, but this was not true for her children.  I thought dog training would lead to a greater understanding of all the ways in which she was oppressing her children.  Not so…

As a trained educator, experienced parent and humane person, my concern is that any helicopter parent, male or female, Asian or western, should realize  that the goal of education is not to mold a child;  instead, it is to enable a child.  When we work with children, the obligation is to establish a foundation  of basic skills, teach our children how build on those skills and help them discover their lifelong interests as self-directed, independent learners. If educators and parents pave the way, young people will link their  skills and with their interests.

Children and young people need time to dream, create and think.  They need time away from academics to move, dance, sing and pursue arts and sciences in their own time.  If children are not allowed to make their own choices and mistakes, discover their strengths and weaknesses, they will not develop self-confidence and autonomy.  The children of today are the leaders of tomorrow—we want them to become independent, self-directed learners who are also creative, open-ended thinkers.  These are the skills necessary to successfully navigate the complicated future that lies ahead.

The Code of the West

My family in 1925 in the mountain community of Indian Hills, outside of Denver. They shared a cabin there when they weren't in their Denver homes.

Last week I finally got my desk sorted–again, although it isn’t cleaned yet.  Eraser shreds, dust from the open windows, crumbs, cat hair, cottonwood fluff, bits of yarn, all still linger here.  What really bothered me was the stacks of paper everywhere–print outs, receipts, folders that I kept moving from place to place.  After the garage sale bust of last weekend–never again!–there was even more stuff to be sorted, stored or given away.   All this organization took time, but it was purging!  Now I know where everything is again as well as what needs to be accomplished.
One benefit was finding a folder where I stuffed newspaper clippings that I wanted to think about.  One of them was a profile about the granddaughter of a Colorado pioneer family who had just turned 100.  She was a truly amazing woman…I say was, because just the day before I had read her obituary in the newspaper.  She died at 101.  Synchronicity!  Another article I found inspired the title of this blog posting.

The Code of the West has inspired a curriculum unit developed by the Ann Moore of Cherry Creek High School and is available from the Cherry Creek School District, a suburban district in the Denver Metro area where my children and one son-in-law attended school, my grandchildren attend now and my other son-in-law teaches.  The curriculum is titled, “Making a Difference: Cowboy Ethics in the Classroom.”  It is intended for middle school and high school students.

The key principles are good for life on the range, in business and on Wall Street.  After watching several documentaries about the recent financial collapse around the world, including the Bernie Madoff debacle, maybe the code has worldwide applications!   See what you think.  It’s very simple:

  • Live each day with courage
  • Take pride in your work
  • Always finish what you start
  • Do what has to be done
  • Be tough but fair
  • When you make a promise, keep it
  • Ride for the brand
  • Talk less and say more
  • Remember that some things aren’t for sale
  • Know where to draw the line

Happy trails to you!

Family Myth 1: Peter and Elizabeth Collins

My sister and I are the remaining members of our immediate family.  Usually she remembers what I have forgotten and I do the likewise for her.  Sometimes we remember the same event differently, based upon many different factors–family placement, what impacted one or the other individually or our emotional baggage at the time.  It is valuable to have another viewpoint to flesh out an event.

For all the family history I did not witness on the maternal side of my family, I have over forty years of family letters written by my grandmother and saved by my aunt.  My grandmother lived in Denver and my aunt lived in New York.  Fortunately, they were skilled and avid letter writers, so when my aunt passed away, my mother brought the letters back to Denver and now I have them.  My aunt  and my mother were intrigued by our family’s genealogy and they encouraged my curiosity.  I have inherited their work and I am building on it, with a firm  resolve to complete the family tree as best I can, as well as write a family history to go with it.  So, let me begin with this story.

Mary Egan Horne Rockfield in a studio pose 1890s

Mary Egan Horne Rockfield

My maternal grandmother was a great storyteller.  My sister and I would sit down on either side of her begging,  “Tell us a story, Grandma!”  Sometimes she would share a fairy tale memorized from an old book that I now cherish.  Other times she would launch into a family story.  We were very young children then, so we never thought of writing down the stories or asking pertinent questions when we didn’t understand something.

At times Grandmother’s stories included people we didn’t know, only discovering later on that she was sharing tales of her husband’s raucous childhood.   My grandfather died four years before I was born, so anything I know about him came from his wife (Grandma), my mother (his daughter) and the few letters preserved by my aunt.  Other stories came from my grandmother’s childhood.  They were intriguing as well, giving my sister and me a glimpse of the olden days.

I realized later on in life that my grandmother tended to exaggerate or embellish her stories.  She did it in her letters too,  as well as her oral storytelling.   At times I wish I was more like her!  One of the reasons I don’t write fiction is that I am very grounded in the truth,  even if it is boring compared to a lovely embellished detail.   Great storytellers and stand-up comedians know the value of  shaping a tale into something funny, interesting or tragic—even if it doesn’t exactly match the events as they actually unfolded.

Two years ago I made a discovery that explained where my maternal grandmother may have inherited her bit of the ol’ Irish blarney–her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Collins.  Peter and Elizabeth Collins were my second great-grandparents.  The emigrated from Ireland before the potato famine and eventually settled in Columbus, Ohio.  My mother and I knew very little about them except their names and the fact  they were the only Catholics in our very Protestant lineage.  In 1950, my Aunt Louise wrote to her mother, requesting information about the family.  Here is the reply she wrote concerning the Collins grandparents.

Edward Pearson Horne & Mary Agnes Collins

Your Grandfather Horne’s people came from Cincinnati, Ohio, and were what you term well-to-do people.  He was born in Philadelphia.  His father died when he was very young and his mother was counting on making a fine, educated lawyer out of him, but he ran away.  He lied about his age and joined the army and when he married a Catholic girl, then she was through with him and it broke her heart.  Also, my Grandfather Collins was wealthy.  He owned a large brick yard and did contracting work.  He built many of the largest homes in Columbus, Ohio.  He died during the awful epidmic of cholera where people dropped by the dozens hourly and he came home for his noon meal, finished eating, went out to sit under a tree in the backyard to rest before returning to his office and was seized with an attack and died before a doctor could arrive.  Their home was a beauty, a 14 room brick house with great white marble mantels in up- and downstairs rooms and great stone steps in front with a high iron picket fence.  It was a show place all on its own.  Grandmother Collins sent her three daughters to a private girl’s school in Cincinnati.  There were none in Columbus good enough for her.

A little over two years ago I was able to visit the genealogical library in Columbus to research the Collins family.  Searching church records, city directories and indexes, I finally found information about Peter Collins.  He had died in 1855, but was buried in the Irish and Polish Catholic cemetery, not the wealthy German Catholic church.  I was directed to a court case involving Elizabeth Collins and her children.  Her husband was not the owner of a brick yard–he worked in one making bricks that went into all the fine houses.   He died destitute.  Bankruptcy proceedings were brought against the Collins family and they were evicted from their home.  It was not on Naughton Street.

Further research revealed that the Edward P. Horne family was living on Naughton Street in the 1880s, in a boarding house managed by Elizabeth Collins.  The house with the marble mantels, great stone steps and iron picket fence had fallen in status and become a multi-family living establishment.  Was my grandmother lying? Was her grandmother lying?  Was my grandmother remembering differently, based on her emotional state of mind or her youth when she heard this story?  The fact that her story and the facts I discovered were so different from each other became the most interesting aspect of this piece of family history.   It explains so much about my grandmother, my aunt and my mother: their firm belief that they were so much better than their circumstances.  The pretensions on the maternal side of my family lasted into my generation, until my sister and I both ran headlong into it as teenagers. Part of our story is the many ways in which we broke free.

Sadly, my second great-grandmother lost her life on the iron picket fence that surrounded the grand old house on Naughton street.  A quail startled the horse she was riding and threw her on to one of those iron pickets.  When she died, my grandmother was eight years old.  What I know of the  circumstances of Mary Agnes Collins Horne’s death are based on a story told to me by my grandmother.

The Retirement Bucket List

Knitting with Boojie's help--knitting was on my bucket list!

It may seem retired people do only what they want–nap, watch TV, sleep late, go shopping, travel.  An acquaintance of mine has been retired  for several months.  I know, through other sources, that she has been struggling with retirement ever since.  She may have envisioned her retirement  days as one long weekend that never ends;  in fact, she told me that retirement seems like Saturday every day–it is hard to keep track of the days of the week sometimes.  However,  I feel confident that will change for her over time.    It certainly has for me.

Five years before I actually retired from my teaching job, I chose to work half-time for half-pay.  This was not the best financial decision for me, but it was necessary for my mental health.  My father had passed away the previous year after suffering through several years of dementia.  The whole experience of dealing with his illness, as well as the loss of him, wiped out my coping abilities.   I had also endured several other upheavals and changes in my life and career during those years before he died.  I wanted to just pack it in, but I did not have the required equation (age plus years invested), or the savings,  to just quit working.    However, the thought  of  spending another five years in the classroom caused panic attacks.  I simply had to make a change in my life.   After negotiating with my principal and the school board, I was designated a half-time teacher of the gifted and talented  at the elementary school where I was already employed.

I’m not going to describe the ups and downs of having a special assignment in a school like the one from which I retired.  That is the subject for another blog entry.  Personal relationships with the other teachers changed dramatically, and I unwisely used much of my time at home working on lessons.  A teacher’s work is never done, especially in her own mind.!   On the plus side, with more time to take care of myself, my health did improve, as did my state of mind.  The negatives included the aforementioned issues, as well as guilt about not working enough.

From my experience, as well as that of my husband and some relatives who have retired, I can say that retirement requires planning.  Over time we discovered the need for hobbies and avocations–some kind of routine and work.   Depression can set in if a formerly busy and employed person has no direction.

You may have goals and hobbies that you always wanted to pursue if you only had the time.  Those might work out or not, so it is important to look beyond them.  I always wanted to write a novel, but discovered that fiction writing was not for me.  I wrote poetry and enjoyed that for awhile.  Ultimately I ended up writing a family memoir and I’m now working on a family history.  These turned out to be more to my liking and an outgrowth of my interests.  Blogging for the everyday person evolved since my retirement, which has also fed my desire to write.

My husband retired involuntarily after the financial crash in 2008.  He was an architect who loved what he did, and hoped to do it forever.  The recent  turn down in home building wiped out his prospects, so he had to do a lot of exploring, experimenting and reflecting before settling into a satisfying routine of writing a murder mystery and accomplishing household design and building and around the house.  We had hoped to travel a lot, but that has been curtailed by reduced finances.  Readjusting, reevaluating and revamping have all become part of our daily discussions.  We have helped each other reflect on what a

Bucket List

change in lifestyle means for us–our bucket lists, so to speak.

Yesterday and today I have been reworking my goals–what don’t I need to do after all?  What is most important to me?  What is my legacy for my children and grandchildren?   All of these are further thoughts for future blogs…

Remembering Tumultuous Times…

3. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights act...

Image via Wikipedia

In July my husband will be drawing Medicare, in addition to the Social Security he now receives. He was born in 1946, one of the first year tide of “baby boomers.”  I was born in 1947, during the second year of “baby booming” in post-war America.  While drinking coffee and reading the paper–a rather old-fashioned notion in my children’s household (not the coffee, just the newspaper!)–I read that the sixties are going to trend in television next season.   The sixties are cool again, thanks to Mad Menit’s the style, not the substance, however.  Don’t get me wrong.  We love Mad Men too, but we watch it with more irony than the generations that follow us.

Don’t get me wrong!  I remember the sixties and the late fifties as well.  My sister and I used to play “apartments” in the new fifties ranch house suburban neighborhood we moved to in 1954.   Lots of slamming of doors and a drinks cart always played prominently in our games, as did smoking.  My parents both quit smoking early in the fifties, so we copied the elegance of TV starlets.  Apartments, drinks carts and cigarettes were all the height of sophistication we didn’t actually see anywhere except on television. My parents didn’t have a drinks cart or a bar, so we used my mother’s glass tea cart with water glasses.  My parents hid a lot of their true selves when we were growing up.   They secreted their liquor in the master bedroom so my tee-totaling grandmothers never knew they imbibed.  Just for the record, they also kept it a secret that they were Democrats, since The Grandmothers were rabid Republicans and would have disapproved.

My sister and I were in junior high and high school during the first half of the sixties.  Fear was in the air then, with the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the glow of President Kennedy and then his assassination.  Civil rights conflicts raged in the southern states,  filling the TV news and the headlines–Freedom Riders, lunch counter sit-ins, peaceful marches ending with police batons and fire hoses.  The angry faces and hate-filled quotes from angry white southerners amazed me, although one of my grandmother’s said the same kind of thing when she visited us.   I graduated from high school in 1965, just on the cusp of more turbulent times.  The Vietnam conflict ramped up and both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.   I attended a quiet teaching college, but MLK’s assassination prompted class closures and protests.  No one could have escaped the clear message: The times they are a-changing…

This is how I remember my childhood and adolescence–sophistication, strictly defined gender roles, frightening upheavals, fear, threats of war and war.  Television messages: cowboys and Indians, pointy bras and ruffly aprons, housewives concerned with their dish and clothes detergents, wise dads and well-intentioned kids.   My own life included a working mom torn between her home, family and huge ambition;  a father whose dreams were never the same after World War II–all he wanted was his home, family and a steady, 9-5 dullish job.  My grandmothers who remembered a past without cars, telephones, washing machines, played a prominent part in my life.

The fifties AND the sixties were iconic times for me, as are the times for anyone remembering the 18-21 years of  growing up.  Both my sister and I married early, within six months of each other.  Our weddings were almost identical since we each wore our mother’s circa 1942 satin wedding dress.   Boy friends, engagement rings and weddings were expectations when we were very young women.  We had church weddings and receptions in the church basement.  Do people do that anymore?  Church basements?  No chocolate fountains or champagne at our weddings!

The new retro television shows coming this fall resurrect the overt sexualization of women that many women, as well as men, bought into.  They are titled The Playboy Club  and Pan Am.  The Playboy Club  needs little explaining, butPan Am does.  Fifty years ago, flight attendants were good looking women only.  No men were allowed, no married or older women were allowed, no overweight or unattractive women were allowed.  Stewardesses were sexualized by innuendo, but that was seen as a plus.  So, these programs will romanticize the style over the substance, once again.  We will tune in for Mad Men on AMCenjoying our blast from the past, but give the network shows a miss.  I don’t really want to be reminded of Playboy or stewardesses.

My sister, my father and I near the beach in Southern California, 08/1960

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13, Rue Therese: A Puzzle Novel for the 21st Century

This new novel features a real box of historic artifacts that fascinate the author of this book, Elena Mauli Shapiro, a girl growing up in Paris.  The apartment upstairs, once occupied by Louise Brunet and her husband, is the source of the box that no one claimed after Louise’s death.   Fortunately for us, Elena’s family cared enough about history to absorb this box into their household.  It even accompanied them on their move to America.

Before I write anything else, I have to say that Elena Mauli Shapiro is  my kind of writer! Not only does the history of remnants from the past capture her, but she is as curious (nosy, perhaps?) as I am.  I also  commend her for the grace and beauty of her language.  I believed I was in France between the  two devastating world wars while I read this book. The use of these wonderful artifacts, as well as her magnificent command of the language, transported me completely.   Her writing was spare, yet on target throughout.  Having read far too many overwritten, unnecessarily wordy books recently, her economy charmed me.

Elena Mauli Shapiro’s debut novel, 13 Rue Therese, uses this box of real artifacts as a frame for the novel.  The photographs, letters, coins, gloves, postcards and small trinkets frame the imaginative story of Louise Brunet and her family.   Extensive research of the years between the devastating world wars of the 20th century provide a strong historical foundation.   The central characters of the novel are real, pictured in the abandoned photographs and ephemera.  History and imagination combine in a reminiscent mixture that ends in 1928.  We readers wish for more.

Shapiro uses an unreliable narrator as the modern transcriber of the artifacts.  He is definitely the weakest link.  As an older reader, I found his fever and distress irritating.   I would have preferred someone with more backbone, but maybe then he would have dominated the story and diminished the portrait of Louise.  Written as it is, he is merely a fly or a mosquito buzzing annoyingly in the background.

Images of the artifacts appear throughout the book.  You can find links to larger photographs with more detail on the book’s website <http://www.13ruetherese.com/about&gt; .  Even more conveniently, if you have a smart phone with the QR app, you can use it to fly right to the website as you read.  Each artifact has its own link,  many of them to You Tube or audio links, further enhancing your reading.  Three cheers for technologically savvy writers!  Although I don’t have a smart phone, when I finished reading the book, I went write to my computer and found the website.  I loved seeing more pictures of Paris and the real 13, Rue Therese, as well as finding out everything I wanted to know about the author. I even subscribed to her blog!

I love history, research and visiting the past through books, music, television and the cinema, so this book met every criteria I look for in a great read!   This book is a wonderful model for historic writing, a genre that appeals to my writing plans.

By the way, the cover of this book is wonderful.  I would like that portrait on my wall!

Here is the Amazon link to the book.  There are links to other book sites as well.  It is available in a Kindle edition too.

http://www.amazon.com/rue-Th%C3%A9r%C3%A8se-Elena-Mauli-Shapiro/dp/0316083283/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273805667&sr=1-1