Thursday, December 25, 2014

I Brake for Fruitcakes

A good fruitcake makes my mouth water. Every Christmas our family partook of some pretty decent fruitcakes, and I have been hooked ever since. Although during those "formative" years I never experienced a truly homemade fruitcake, apparently the quality of the "bought" cakes far surpassed what we might find in a supermarket today.

My father set the example of fruitcake appreciation for us. He would always talk about how delicious his mother's homemade fruitcakes had been. Every year. We would be snacking on whatever fruitcake my mother had bought for that Christmas, and my father would always reminisce about Grandmother's fruitcakes. To lay this ghost to rest, I think, my mother decided one year to have Grandmother come over to our new house and recreate that famous fruitcake. Interestingly, Grandmother had never baked fruitcakes in my personal memory!! My father brought Grandmother over one afternoon, supplied her with all the necessary ingredients, and my mother opened up the kitchen for the big event. We gathered at a respectful distance to watch.

Grandmother, of course, came from the generation that didn't really use written recipes. She filled the mixing bowl with an assortment of ingredients, and mixed and stirred and mixed and stirred until the batter met her requirements. I don't remember what size pan she used, but she successfully transferred the batter into the pan and plopped it in the oven.

To complete the process, after the cake baked, it was time to soak it in wine. My family didn't drink, so my father had to buy something suitable at the local grocery store. (No state-controlled liquor stores for that good Baptist deacon!) He had brought home a bottle of Manischewitz grape wine. I know. But Manischewitz would have to do.

We faithfully bathed the fruitcake in the wine over the course of a few weeks and kept it in a covered container. Finally Christmas arrived and Christmas dinner was on the table. Grandmother always ate these feasts with us, too. When the meal had been cleared away, my mother brought out The Fruitcake. My father took up his knife with eager anticipation and sliced the cake. We waited until everyone had a piece of The Fruitcake on our plates. Then we took our first bites.

My reaction? This was a very good fruitcake, lots better than any previous ones we had consumed.

My father's reaction? Alas, another case of something recreated in the present that didn't measure up to what he remembered. He ate the slice, but he was so disappointed. "It doesn't taste like the ones you used to make," he said sadly.

My grandmother's reaction? She just laughed and ate her slice of cake. She never baked another fruitcake.

The remaining Manischewitz wine? We gave it to my Uncle Jeff, since "he drank". (He had an occasional beer--he was my father's brother-in-law. Can't imagine what he thought about the Manischewitz!)

When I moved from Virginia to Chicago with my little family in 1981, I discovered that hardly anyone I met looked forward to having fruitcakes at Christmas. I was alone in a world empty of good fruitcakes. Yet as my circle of friends widened, kindred spirits rose up and I embraced a little circle of fruitcake fans. I even began to make my own fruitcakes! (By this time my dear grandmother had died, so I couldn't compare notes.)

Each year I would produce a batch of cakes in early November and lovingly wrap them in wine-soaked cheesecloth before storing them. I would send a fruitcake or two to my parents, save one for me, and share the rest with my 'fruitcake club' in Chicago. Yummy years! Gradually, however, my parents no longer could eat the fruitcakes and the impetus to put all that effort into the preparation began to dwindle. After we moved to Indiana, I felt like I was back in that desert again.

Monday of this week I set forth on a quest to find a handmade, traditional fruitcake in a town east of here. I needed to find the Next Door Neighbor Bakery in Middlebury, Indiana. Success! After I left the toll road and found the correct country road, I drove along until I spotted a simple sign that said "Bakery 1 Mile Ahead", with a little added sign below promising "Fruitcakes". Aha! This bakery, operated by the family on whose land it sits, offers some tasty baked goods, and also features "Fruitcakes by Deb" (the farmer's wife). I nabbed a lovely traditional fruitcake and headed back to South Bend, promising myself that I wouldn't taste the cake until today.

You may imagine my anticipation at Christmas Dinner this afternoon. Turkey and all the trimmings provided a very filling meal, but The Fruitcake rested in splendor on its serving plate and beckoned us all. Finally, I took out my knife and prepared a slice. This cake overflowed with fruits and nuts, with nary a piece of candied citron or bright green cherry. I was pleasantly impressed with the whole thing. I couldn't detect any soaking in liquor, so that disappointed a bit, but overall this was a very good fruitcake. Was I satisfied? Yes, indeed. Will I buy another next year? Absolutely!

In the course of this quest, I have discovered at least one local friend who also appreciates a good fruitcake. So I just might resume my fruitcake factory next year, too. Things are looking up! Grandmother would get a good chuckle out of all this.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The First Time Ever We Saw Her Face

My son and I share a keen interest in space exploration, which means we frequently talk about both the history  and the future of NASA's programs. A few days ago I was reminiscing with him about the Apollo program and how those flights captured the imagination of our whole country. Then, as I was in the throes of Christmas decorating and present-wrapping, I began to recall the momentous flight of Apollo 8 in late December 1968. You may know that the Apollo 8 mission marked the first successful orbit of the moon by the Apollo program. Astronauts Borman, Anders, and Lovell bear the honor of bringing the moon to us through their observations and photographs.

Apollo 8 gave us yet another, more astonishingly significant, gift. On Christmas Eve in 1968, during their fourth orbit of the moon, the astronauts glimpsed something for the very first time: Earthrise. Borman was maneuvering the spacecraft to a new attitude, which caused the sight lines out the windows to catch the slow "rise" of Earth above the moon's horizon. They hadn't been able to see this on the first three orbits. Now, the three men became the first human beings to see this phenomenon. The experience astonished them and they scrambled to photograph the sight. If you listen to the transcription of their conversation, you can hear their wonder and excitement and awe. Most people have seen this iconic photograph. It even graced a US Postal Service stamp. Billions of people have grown up knowing what Earth looks like rising over the moon's horizon.

Those of us alive in 1968 who saw these photos for the very first time will never forget the thrill, will never forget the beauty of that initial glimpse of Earth. Oh my. It still makes me shake my head in wonder. Earth looked so very beautiful, so wonderful, so exquisite. I think it might be the best photograph ever taken of anything!

As if this weren't enough, the crew of Apollo 8 gave us one more memory that Christmas. While they orbited the moon, they read the first ten verses of the creation story from the book of Genesis. They broadcast this message over live television, and it riveted us in place in front of our set. Looking at Earth as the astronauts took turns reading that ancient story gave me goosebumps, and I'm sure I wasn't alone. Borman, Anders, and Lovell gave all of us such a gift.

You see, 1968 had been a very bad year. The Tet offensive in Vietnam had brutally begun the year, and things grew worse. President Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, which opened a rancorous election campaign. In April, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. sent the country into a dreadful period of violence and sadness. In June, an assassin gunned down Robert Kennedy, plunging us further into turmoil. The Democratic Convention, held in Chicago later that summer, produced violent conflicts between protesters and  law enforcement and made us all worry that we were slipping into chaos. By the time the presidential election was over, with Nixon as the president-elect, we entered the Christmas season more or less reeling from all the events of the previous months. We needed help. We needed something to draw us upward.

When we saw Earth's face through the windows of the Apollo 8 spacecraft, we gazed in wonder for the first time at the incomparable beauty of our home. God had made this place for us amidst the dark void of space. God had given us the curiosity and the intelligence and the ability to explore our little portion of space. Even more importantly, God had given us Earth to care for and to dwell in together. I remember thinking that we could change the way things were going, that we could turn our efforts to human well-being, that we could still be good stewards of this planet.

We know all too well that the intervening years have not produced universal peace, freedom from poverty, disease, and hunger, or the complete improvement of relationships between cultures. But I have never lost that hope, and whenever I see the Earthrise photo, it seems to me a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Singing With A Thousand Strangers

Christmas seems incomplete without hearing portions of George Frederick Handel's "Messiah". Some of us put those CDs in the audio system and listen to Handel for weeks. Some of us even sing portions of "Messiah" in our parish choirs. But the most extraordinary presentations of that music occur when masses of singers join together and 'sing along'.

Before I moved  away from Chicago, I participated a few times in the "Do-It-Yourself Messiah" sponsored by La Salle Bank and held in the Civic Opera House. (I think this event still occurs, but now sponsored by different groups and located in the Harris Theater.)  Come with me as I remember this experience!

My friends and I clutched our bright blue copies of the entire "Messiah" score as we crossed Wacker Drive to the entrance of the Civic Opera House. Singers streamed through all the doors, and the lobby was packed with folks bearing those blue books!  A couple of us were altos and a couple sopranos, and I recall once we had a couple of basses with us, too. The doors to the main floor of the opera house opened at the specified time and we pushed through to our designated seating areas. Of course, we weren't quite far enough ahead to get close to the stage, but we found seats together and settled in. Sopranos sat in the far left section, facing stage left. Next came altos, then tenors, and then basses, facing stage right. You can be sure that every seat was filled quickly. The excitement level rose and fell.

Finally, Sir Andrew Davis walked out onto the stage (where the orchestra already waited) and oriented us to the proceedings. He was quite good-humored and apparently prepared to have a jolly good time conducting this huge collection of amateur singers. And, of course, he did have a stable of excellent soloists to carry us through the tricky bits!

Off we went. Most of you will be familiar with the variety of music within the "Messiah", so you will understand that it's a mixture of solos and chorus and instrumental parts. I had never sung with such an enormous group before and didn't quite know what to expect. Sir Andrew gave us our cue to rise when the first chorus approached, and the entire house stood up. Wow! What an overwhelming sound rose from all those voices (and overwhelming in a good, not awful, way!). We sang our hearts out, with great enthusiasm, and I've never felt anything else like that, musically. At least in my portion of the alto section, everyone followed along as if they did this sort of thing every day. It was inspiring and exciting and uplifting all at once.

And all that was just the first chorus. We sang all the way through the whole oratorio, not stopping after the "Hallelujah" chorus. I particularly appreciated that opportunity. There was a very necessary intermission, when we had the chance to chat with our choral neighbors and compare notes. Then back to our seats and the marvelous musical gallop to the end. I was exhausted but exhilarated when everything finished. I was also hooked after that first time, and participated in two more "Messiahs" before we moved away.

Handel's continuing universal appeal means that you, too, might find one of these 'singalongs' in your city or town this year. If you enjoy listening to the "Messiah" and can follow a musical score even a little bit, I encourage you to give such a concert a try. Those of you who sing along to the "Messiah" when selections are played on the radio will be transported by the experience. Even if you are singing with strangers around you at the beginning, by the time the last notes die away you will be singing with comrades and perhaps new friends.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Another Pen Laid Down Forever

The recent death of P.D. James reminded me how hard it is to say goodbye to good authors. As long as a favorite writer continues to publish books, I don't like to think about 'the last one', even though it's inevitable. And even if a favorite hasn't published anything in quite a while, I still cherish the hope that one more volume will emerge.

Some of those whom I've "loved and lost" in recent years besides James are:  Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter), Dorothy Gilman, Lilian Jackson Braun, and Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Merz). If you see a theme here, it's good detective fiction writing. I am a glutton for that genre, especially British detective fiction. And of course when the writer dies, the series ends. Oh, how I'd like for Brother Cadfael to tackle another medieval mystery in Shrewsbury or for Amelia Peabody to astonish and overwhelm the archaeological profession in 1920's Egypt. I would love to read just one more adventure featuring Mrs. Pollifax, really I would. Alas, those story lines are done. I re-read the books frequently, but not compulsively. They are old friends. After Christmas, I will organize my P.D. James collection and begin reading her debut novel.

I wish I could have met James. One of my good friends in London actually worked with her in the Home Office for a time. She and he frequently took their "elevenses" together in the same staff room. This was quite early in her writing career, and she had left the Home Office before I met my friend.
I did meet Ellis Peters, at a little bookshop in Winnetka. It was called "Scotland Yard Books", appropriately enough, since it specialized in mystery fiction. Peters was touring the U.S., promoting her latest book, and stopped off for a book signing. Some friends and I zipped up to the North Shore, books in hand, and had the opportunity to meet and greet Peters. If you're at all familiar with her books, they feature lots of different types of murders and Peters gives the reader quite graphic descriptions! So I wasn't exactly prepared for what she looked like in person. Why, there sat a nice little grey-haired English grandmother! Yes, just the sort of person you could sit down with and have a lovely cup of tea whilst discussing lurid plots and hair-raising adventures. It's a delightful memory that I cherish whenever I re-read the Cadfael collection.

A writer whose delay in publishing his final work kept me dangling for years was William Manchester. No detective fiction here, just good, solid historical biography. He began a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill years ago. The series was entitled The Last Lion and I bought volumes I and II as quickly as Manchester published them. He wrote brilliantly and I commend those books to anyone looking for excellent work on Churchill. I waited and waited and waited for volume III. And waited and waited. Now and then a hint emerged that Manchester continued to work on the book. Then even the hints stopped. In 2001 he informed his waiting readers that he wouldn't be able to finish the book, due to his struggle with health issues. He didn't want any collaborators. He had over 100,000 pages of research material already written but he couldn't finish. Oh my goodness. Such a disappointment. Manchester died in 2004. I resigned myself to the loss of that final volume. Then in  2012, volume III appeared! It seems that Manchester did select a collaborator after all, who pulled together those 100,000 pages and gave us the final 20 years of Churchill's life. I don't imagine that any of you were waiting on the edges of your seats for this book to appear, but I considered it a marvelous gift. All three volumes reside on my bookshelves now.

I also confess to waiting hopefully for Dorothy Gilman to give us another Mrs. Pollifax mystery. I checked her website periodically and looked for news of her, but very little emerged. She received a few literary awards, one as late as 2010, but no new novels appeared. I suspected that health concerns also were preventing her from resuming her writing. And then, I came across her obituary in 2012, when she died of complications from Alzheimer's at age 88. Ah well, it was selfish of me to wish she had forced out two or three more books before she left us!

So goodbye, P.D. James. I hope that she and all the others have found each other in eternity and are relishing their 'meeting of the minds'.  I like to think they are.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Your Nose Knows

As I peeled and ate a clementine today, I remembered how the aroma of a fresh tangerine always makes me think of Christmas. Apparently tangerines didn't appear in our grocery stores year-round as I was growing up. And since the fresh clementines have just appeared in the markets here, that seasonal schedule still seems to operate in 2014. I, of course, immediately segued into the way other aromas remind me of particular places or people.

My Grandmother Harrison always kept a tin of peppermints on the chair-side table in her living room. That means whenever I pop a couple of Altoids in my mouth, she instantly comes to mind. What a lovely trigger of memory! She also had a little garden behind her house in downtown Portsmouth, and grew fresh mint in one corner. (How she kept the mint from taking over the entire garden I will never know, because she had died before I became interested in herb gardening!) Sometimes when I visited her, she would let me take a few sprigs of mint from the plants and just crush them and smell them. That was a special treat.

Although I couldn't tell you what contributed to it, the aroma of my Aunt Rachel's house will always be a pleasant part of my olfactory memory. (Do we have an olfactory memory?) Every once in a a great while I will go into a house or room that evokes Aunt Rachel's house, and I remember so many good times there. Family gatherings, Christmas, crab feasts, birthday parties--I grew up there as much as I grew up in our home.

Uncle Henry's house also had a distinct and welcoming aroma which I couldn't possible trace to any one thing. But I would know it in a heartbeat if my nose alerted me. And yes, every now and then over the years I have sniffed a hint of that unique aroma and been carried back over months and years to times filled with fun and memories.

Grandmother's house, Aunt Rachel's house, and Uncle Henry's house are not available for visits any longer, but I am always hoping for an aromatic surprise to take me back there.

The Jergens hand lotion that my mother used always smelled so delicious to me. I don't know what mixture produced that fragrance. I don't run into it often, but when I do, I am changed back into that little girl who loved the smell of her mother's hands.

What other aromas trigger memories for me? The original Old Spice after shave was my father's signature scent (he called it "stinkum" when we were little). When my children were small, and we would visit my parents' house, they loved to wear "Pops' T-shirts" as their pajamas/nightgowns, using my father's oldest T-shirts. We would usually bring some of these back to Chicago with us, and I loved to cuddle with my children when they wore these shirts because it was like having my father right there with us. I wish I still had one of these, now that he's gone.

Colonial Williamsburg's buildings bear a distinctive smell, too. I spent lots of time there! Whenever I smell bayberry candles and eucalyptus (although I'm not sure it's a plant found there in the 18th century), I might as well be in CW. Do you suppose that's why I only have bayberry candles in my house? Even in the Wren building on campus at William and Mary smells like that!

Cigar smoke takes me to Paris, in the spring of 1974. My friends and I were touring the Continent on our spring holidays, and we used the Paris Metro extensively during our days there. Did every male in Paris smoke cigars then? It certainly seemed like they did. And of course, the smoke from those awful French cigarettes permeated the entire city. But Cigars = Paris Metro remains an instant trigger for me, regardless of where I actually am.

Another memorable aroma is the way a spring evening smells in Tidewater Virginia. It's very difficult to describe. Spring in that part of the world is a particularly voluptuous season. Everything blooms with embarrassing enthusiasm, and at night, when the temperature hovers between warm and cool, the smells of the grass and the flowers and just simply the air combine in one unforgettable mixture. I can't really give you a true written picture, but I miss those spring evenings.

With winter knocking at the door, I find it quite pleasant to think of fragrant flowers! And I'll leave you with one final aromatic memory: gardenias in bloom. Outside my parents' bedroom window, my mother planted gardenia bushes. I believe they came as a gift from our neighbor, Mrs. Eastwood, who had famously gorgeous gardenia bushes. In our part of Virginia, gardenias bloom in early June.  My parents didn't have any air conditioning until after I left for college, so on those summer nights we lay in bed with all windows open. The night-time breezes wafted the gardenias' fragrance through our bedroom window, and my sister and I drifted off to sleep, blessed by nature's benediction. No wonder she and I wait eagerly for the first blossoms to appear every year (from that same bush, now grown quite tall but still producing perfect blooms).

Everyone shares these kinds of memories, I know. Thanks for sharing this aromatic trip down memory lane tonight. I think I'll go and peel another clementine!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

When Friends See What You Can't See in Yourself

As I was playing some Advent hymns on the piano today, I thought about the many Decembers I spent singing in parish choirs in Chicago. St. Veronica's, St. Benedict's, St. Mary of Perpetual Help, St. Martha's: many years' worth of music and liturgies. In each of these settings, the choir director was my friend Les. He is one of the most creative and talented musicians I have ever met (perhaps the most) and over the years became one of my closest friends.

I am not even in the same hierarchy of musicians! I belong in an entirely parallel list. But as time passed, I actually became the substitute organist at three of these parishes. And I never would have thought that was possible. Never. Who thought I could meet those challenges without any problem? Les did. In his usual, off-handed way he would mention that he needed me to cover for him on a particular date. Stress!! The worst obstacle was learning the psalm for the day, because Les also composed a marvelous collection of psalm settings and they were always a challenge to me. Some of them only had chord suggestions (!!) accompanying the melody lines, and when I asked him for tips, he would rattle off what I ought to do and move on to another topic. Oh my goodness. Usually the hymns gave me no problems, since I grew up playing the piano for congregational singing in my church in Virginia. But those psalms gave me fits! And of course there were the additional pieces I needed to play during Communion and other moments. My focus intensified as Saturday and Sunday approached.

It's important to note, also, that although I studied the piano for ten years, I only had one year of organ lessons, in high school. I couldn't improvise or transpose and I had no good sense of chord varieties/progressions. What did I think I was doing?

Here's the amazing part: I actually managed to serve as a substitute organist without disaster or mental breakdowns. I learned so much! I mastered the "cues" from the liturgy, so that I didn't break into "Holy, holy, holy" too early; I was ready when it was time for the Memorial Acclamation; I began the Agnus Dei in time to 'call' the priest back to the altar before the sign of peace got too carried away. I learned which combinations of stops on the organ sounded the best for hymns, for psalms, for service music, and for the solo organ pieces during Mass. And I learned all of this pretty darn quickly, because Les assumed I could just do it.

On two different occasions, I literally slid onto the organ bench during Mass as Les slid off, first due to a family emergency and then due to his sudden illness. How in the world did that happen?

My dear friend Alice and I have discussed this many times, she from the vantage point of a professional singer and I from my little corner as an accompanist. (Many times she cantored when I played the organ--the "Alice and Barbara Show", we called ourselves.) We have concluded that we rose to meet these challenges largely because Les thought we could. And perhaps more than thought--because he expected that we could. I became a better musician because somehow Les knew I would be. (Alice was already marvelous.) Isn't that such a gift?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Encyclopedias and Great Books

I devoured books as I grew up. Beginning with the library in my elementary school, followed by the library in my church, then the public library near my home, and ultimately my high school library, I haunted the bookshelves. I read constantly and widely. I always had a book or two to read.

We never owned many books in those years, but when I was eight or nine, my parents purchased a set of World Book Encyclopedias on the 'book a month' plan. All the volumes arrived at once, but my parents paid monthly. This represented a sacrifice for them, because budgets were tight before my mother returned to teaching. I hope they knew how entranced I always was with these books. Did any of you, dear readers, ever just sit down and read the encyclopedia? Just curl up with a volume and absorb everything on those pages? I spent so many hours doing exactly that. A World Book volume always began with the history and origin of that particular letter of the alphabet. That in itself was fascinating! And then we were off, rambling through an amazing and enthralling summary of everything in the world (it seemed to me). I loved those encyclopedias. When my daughter was starting school, my parents gave me that set of World Books. I don't know if they impressed my children as much as they did me, but we certainly used them! Much later, my husband surprised me for Valentine's Day with a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. My joy knew no bounds! These volumes rest proudly on shelves in my living room and I still pull them out to ramble through the breadth of human knowledge. (They are so much more satisfying than Google.)

As part of my husband's "trousseau" when we married, he brought along a complete set of The Great Books, in their specially-fitted bookcase, which his parents had purchased early in their own marriage and which had accompanied them across the country. We have this bookcase on the staircase landing between the first and second floor in our home. Every time I walk past these books, I stop and think about the depth and breadth of knowledge they contain, and I say a little 'thank you' to my husband's parents for their example of and respect for intellectual curiosity. I haven't come close to reading all the Great Books yet!

What impresses me about all this? The conviction of my parents and my in-laws that having such resources available in their homes would make a difference for their families. They understood that the search for knowledge could open a multitude of doors for their children (and for themselves), and having the best information, best literature, best philosophy, best history, and best science gave their children something wonderful and precious.

I am embarrassed to tell you how many books fill my house now (and I am always adding to those on my Kindle). I still visit our public library regularly. And I drink daily from the fountain of information flowing on the internet. But I never forget who set my feet upon this path, and I'll always love a good encyclopedia!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Life Was So Peaceful in the Laundry

I am genetically predisposed to enjoy laundry and ironing. Really.

 My grandfather owned and operated several large commercial laundries in his lifetime. He even secured a patent on a device for timing laundry cycles in the days before automatic washing machines and dryers.  His children frequently helped out as they grew up. My father and his brothers and sisters could reduce themselves to speechless laughter, tears streaming down their faces, as they told stories from their times in the laundry.

Most of what they helped with was folding clean and dry clothes. Every single one of them had a keen eye for properly folded items, especially tablecloths and sheets. When communion Sunday rolled around in the Baptist church I attended as a child, the communion vessels lay covered with a beautifully laundered and pressed cloth. Two deacons removed this cloth and folded it before the bread and grape juice could be distributed. My father and his sister Rachel watched the folding with eagle eyes, and we always heard a critique of the deacons' efforts. I don't believe anyone ever achieved a 100% approval rating! And I fear that I wouldn't meet their standards now either, although I can fold a mean sheet or tablecloth.

One of my favorite stories about Grandfather Harrison comes from his time as the director of laundry services at the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach during the Second World War. On his first day in this position, my grandfather confronted a room in the laundry area that was filled with the hotel's 'dirty linen'. These were pieces which had been so severely stained that the previous laundry service directors had given up hope of cleaning them. The hotel manager told my grandfather to do what he could and then throw away the unusable pieces. Grandfather took up his duties as director, improving laundry services and raising the standards of the Cavalier's amenities. Every now and then he would take out pieces from the 'hopeless' pile of laundry and attack the perverse stains. He had studied his profession with the focus and curiosity of a chemistry professor and, according to my father, knew how best to remove an astonishing variety of stains. Over the several years he served at the Cavalier, my grandfather restored every single piece of the 'hopelessly stained' hotel linen. And he left no ruined linen behind for his successor when he moved on to the Monticello Hotel in downtown Norfolk. I love this image of him, patiently and thoroughly attacking the challenge of this mountain of dirty linen, and using his encyclopedic knowledge of the chemistry of cleaning fabrics to prevent his employer from losing part of his business investment.

As a result of this kind of heritage, I love to do laundry! Now, of course, we don't have to consult stain removal reference books and we seldom even add bleach. I suspect few of us even use hot water very much for our laundry loads. But I enjoy the challenge of a tough stain and I love to produce a fresh, dry stack of clothes and linens.

I don't have much scope for ironing now, since so many fabrics are no-iron, but I well remember my mother turning most of the household ironing over to me by the time I was 10. I would set up the ironing board in our kitchen and she would bring in the clean clothes that needed attention. I would cheerfully stand there and iron anything she needed me to do. Even after I had grown up and moved away, whenever I came home to visit I would do a batch or two of ironing. And my Grandmother Harrison herself was known to critique the thoroughness of my technique when I ironed shirt collars!

My father and his brothers and sisters always looked back fondly on their times helping out my grandfather. When they finished up their swapping of tales about those years, they would smile at each other and say, "Life was so peaceful in the laundry".  I can appreciate that!

Friday, November 21, 2014

I Miss Fred Rogers

I have missed Fred Rogers since my youngest child moved up to grade school and I returned to full-time teaching. But my children and I shared a total of 15 years of life in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Now that my grandchildren are growing up, I am plotting how to ensure their inheritance of this unequaled programming.

It won't be easy. PBS has pushed Mr. Rogers off to the side. I don't know if, in fact, one can find his show regularly on any PBS station. I think not. And this is a great, great loss for our children. Fred Rogers understood how to connect with everyone who was watching his shows, adults as well as children. I looked forward to a new episode with as much pleasure as my children did. And the operas! Oh my goodness, how delightful they were and how truly musical and clever. Do any of you remember them? "Bubbleland"? "Spoon Mountain"? "All in the Laundry"? There were at least three more that I recall. I wish that his estate would consider making DVDs of the operas available. (Believe it or not, I have asked them!! This isn't on their list yet.)

Fred Rogers came to mind last week when I was visiting my grand twins. My grandson has recently and quite suddenly become afraid of the bathtub and taking baths. He's too young to fear going down the drain, but his desperate weeping brought one of Mr. Rogers' songs into my head. Who remembers "You Can Never Go Down the Drain"? Over the years, I used songs from the show to illustrate points in some of my high school classes. "What do you do with the mad that you feel when you feel so mad you could bite?" "Some are fancy on the inside, some are fancy on the outside." "Let's think of something to do while we're waiting,while we're waiting for something new to do." I don't imagine these would be familiar with my students if I were still in the class room.

Why do I think Fred Rogers provided children with unequaled television programming?

First, he carried his themes through the course of an entire week and developed them at a pace children could grasp.

Second, he talked about issues and events that all children think about and experience (as adults do, too), and talked to children almost as an equal or at the very least a good, kind friend.

Third, he clearly distinguished between 'real' and 'make-believe'. We could meet his "neighbors" in his neighborhood and then find the same actors portraying characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I think this technique served his viewers very well.

Fourth, Fred Rogers had the same curiosity and awe about the world and its inhabitants that all of us had as children and some of us still retain. He was always interested in such interesting people and places and things. I will never forget how Crayola crayons are made!

Fifth (and last for now), Fred Rogers brought music and art and dance and every sort of creative activity into every episode. What wonderful and amazing and talented people graced his programs!

These programs gave us time to think, laugh, sing, wonder, and empathize.  I learned so much from Fred Rogers! He was the very best and I am so grateful that my children spent that time with him. I hope to pass some of these treasured programs on to my grandchildren.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

She Filled the Room with Music

My great aunt Mary lived her entire life in central North Carolina. Born in Wake County, she and her husband Marvin farmed and raised a family in Roseboro. I didn't know her very well, seeing her only when she and Uncle Marvin would come up to Raleigh when we were in town to go to the North Carolina State Fair. Uncle Marvin and Aunt Mary would always stay with her eldest sister, my great aunt Lidie. I loved hearing them talk and tell stories and 'carry on' while sitting in Aunt Lidie's front porch rocking chairs. And I particularly loved eating the fresh, ripe watermelons that Uncle Marvin brought along as treats. Oh my goodness. Never have I tasted such sweet, juicy, crisp watermelons as those. Uncle Marvin's melons set my standards unattainably high, I'm afraid. (I am a watermelon snob as a result. Oh well.) My memories of Aunt Mary and Uncle Marvin contain happy and loving images.

Aunt Mary, however, had borne great sadness in her life. She and Uncle Marvin had several sons and one daughter, June. As my father told me, little June was a lovely little girl and the light of her parents' lives. The farmhouse where the family lived had an open fireplace (in the living room, I think), and of course in the colder months a fire always blazed there. Little June, probably around 4 at the time, was playing in the vicinity of the fireplace. You know where I am going with this story. In a terrible, terrible accident, she somehow tripped and fell into the edge of the fire. She died from her burns. My father always grew quite sad when he told this story. I can only imagine the hole this tragedy ripped in the family. And what must it have done to Aunt Mary and Uncle Marvin? She battled this sorrow for the rest of her life. I know that she struggled with depression off and on in a place and time where this wasn't an acknowledged condition. Yet she persevered somehow and lived a long life.

My greatest memory of her comes from her visit one afternoon to our new house. This would have been around 1963 or 1964, I think. We had an old upright piano in the family room of the new house, and that's where I practiced. The day that Aunt Mary visited, everyone else in the family was outside doing something or other. I was walking into the kitchen when I saw Aunt Mary sit down at the piano.

Who knew she could play? I thought she would pick out "Chopsticks" or something like that.


Aunt Mary lifted her hands to the keyboard and began to play a transcription of the "Barcarolle" from Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann". This arrangement required the pianist to cover the entire length of the keyboard with wonderful, difficult chords and arpeggios and all kinds of beautiful but technical music.

My jaw just dropped. Aunt Mary flat out killed that piece.

She was wonderful. Back and forth, up and down the keyboard, her hands moved with amazing certitude and skill. When she reached the piece's conclusion, she just sat for a few moments before standing up. I don't remember what I could possibly have said to her, but we both smiled huge grins at each other and then went on outside to find the others.

I will never forget that day. What wonderful surprises can come from the people about whom you think you know everything. I like to think that Aunt Mary's music carried her through the dark valleys and lifted her to the highest hills.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

We Are What We Eat

Many of us try to keep a close eye on the types of food we eat and we expend incredible amounts of energy and money on healthy living and exercise. Doesn't it make even more sense to keep a close eye on our appetites for entertainment?

While my children were growing up, I maintained a very careful guard over everything they read and watched on television and saw in movie theatres. A very careful guard. I didn't even open the door to video games until my youngest was five years old. Now that my grandchildren have arrived, I unreservedly support their parents' efforts to provide wholesome, carefully selected books. (We are not moving to television or films yet.)

Of course, I am not alone in my concern for what my children absorbed during their earliest years. Every parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle feels the same mandate to protect children. Now that mine are adults, I am confident that they continue to fill their minds and hearts with good things. Or at least with mostly good things! But I know it is amazingly difficult to fend off the sheer quantity of material that we are encouraged to read or see. (For example, how many of you now have an indelible image of Kim Kardashian imprinted on your brain after this past week?) If I express my aversion to reading or watching something which "everyone" is reading or watching, my friends (and some family members) just shake their heads and relegate me to the "not up-to-date with our culture" category.

I don't watch films or shows featuring gratuitous violence, horror, soft or hard core pornography, bleak hopelessness, or a malevolent stance on the inherent value of each human life. I really don't care if millions of my fellow citizens flock to these types of movies and rate them highly. Am I simply incapable of handling "mature content"?

Why do I keep my door closed to these types of visual experiences? Once a person has seen something, he or she can never 'un-see' it. Yes of course we know that films and television shows are fictional, and we supposedly make a 'willing suspension of disbelief' when we watch them. But the images are in our memories forever. I don't want ugly, violent, misshapen images hovering in the background of my mind, ready to pop up and disturb me. I don't want garbage floating loosely through my memories.

If our appetites yearn for literal, visual depictions of horror, violence, sex, sadism, and so forth, and we satisfy those appetites, we become what we eat. Perhaps not killers or sadomasochists, but people whose lives grow darker because of these appetites. It's a slippery slope. This kind of "food" makes us as ill as a diet of non-stop sugar and pastries. And the resulting illnesses burden us with a terminal spiritual diagnosis.

Does this attitude mean that I have my head in the sand? Am I avoiding "human drama"?  No, dear reader, quite the contrary. I keep abreast of current events all over the world, and am only too cognizant of the sufferings and struggles of so many. Enough bad things happen in reality. I don't seek to be entertained or titillated by dramatic recreations of them.

I acknowledge the rough and painful parts of human life, but I don't despair.  And I am trying to feed myself with good things.

Always in my mind are the wise words that Saint Paul wrote to the church in Philippi: "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence, and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things".

Friday, November 14, 2014

She Wouldn't Take 'No' For An Answer

My mother experienced her school days differently from my father. She grew up in a small town southwest of Asheville, North Carolina, and went to school with the same friends and family all the way through high school. Unlike my father, she had the opportunity to complete two years of college, thanks to her oldest brother who sent her an allotment from his Navy pay during World War II. To the best of my knowledge, she's the only one of the eleven children in her family who attended college.

I want to share one of my favorite stories about her earliest school years.

My grandfather served as both principal and classroom teacher at Maple Springs School, the very small country school his children attended. He and they could easily walk to school every morning, traversing the "Little Red Hill" behind their house. My mother was the fifth child in the family, and had watched her older siblings go off to school every day with her daddy. She turned five in March. When school began in late August, her sister Edith, who was six, prepared to join the older children and march to school that day. This was too much for my mother. She and Edith were very close, and if Edith could go to school, mother felt sure she could go, too. She put on her nice dress and went out the door with the rest of the bunch. My grandfather stopped her and told her she wasn't old enough. Apparently mother 'pitched a fit', as we say. Determined to go, she fussed and cried and carried on so dramatically that, in order to get everyone else to school on time, my grandfather relented and let her come along. If a five-year-old could look smugly satisfied, I think my mother did. Off she went with Edith and the rest. (I imagine my grandmother sighed with relief!)

Apparently, my mother was a good judge of when she should start school. She picked up the first grade work easily and followed along with the class from that day onward. As she sat in the classroom, she noticed the alphabet posted on a type of cardboard frieze around the upper edges of the walls. She learned those letters very thoroughly in order, and then, remarkably, she learned them backwards, too. My sister and brother and I heard her many, many times just zip right through the alphabet from Z to A. Might she have had a little extra time on her hands during that first year?

Mother went on to become a teacher herself, first in a one-room school back in Nantahala, North Carolina and then as a kindergarten teacher in Portsmouth for 35 years.  I've always wondered if her experiences as a precocious five-year-old influenced her remarkable ability to teach and lead four- and five-year-olds in her kindergarten classes. She taught and formed my own children, her first grandchildren, and I am channeling her with my own grandchildren. Her determination and support provided us with college and graduate school. But I never learned the alphabet backwards.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Listen and Write It Down

My father's family moved quite frequently after my grandfather's business failed in the Great Crash of 1929. I know that my father felt he didn't get a good foundation in reading and writing because he was in and out of so many different schools. He didn't have confidence in his ability to write "important" letters or minutes of meetings. And yet he was a voracious reader, a well-spoken man, and a fountain of knowledge such as I have never met in any other person. His practical and theoretical mathematical and engineering expertise were amazing. (My sister and I would never have gotten through geometry in high school without him!) Needless to say, I thought he knew everything (and still believe he pretty much did). Both of my parents strongly supported their children's quest for education. The value they placed on learning permeated my whole life and still does.

Because my father attended so many different schools, he didn't have a group of school friends that grew up together. Every year or so there were new faces and he was, of course, the 'new boy'. I don't imagine this was easy. I can picture him, a little, shy fellow, trying to pick up the atmosphere of a new school, trying to figure out what this new teacher expected, trying to read all the 'clues' which would help him do well. I'm sure he paid very close attention, both in and out of class, lest he miss something important.

This leads me to my favorite story about my father's school career. His senior year in high school found him at Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, Virginia. He was there only that year. How challenging to be the 'new kid' in a class of seniors! I don't think he worried too much about the math and science courses at all, and if he took a history or government course, he would have been confident about that, too, because he loved history. His senior English Literature class, however, cowed him. As he told the story, on the very first day of class, his teacher (as all teachers do) gave the students an overview of the semester, including her expectations. I can just picture him writing down everything she said. At one point in that class, his teacher said "Your final examination for this course will be a detailed outline of the history and development of English literature." My father wrote that down and underlined it.

His teacher never mentioned that examination topic again. My father, however, began to work on his outline. He kept up with his daily assignments, but also toiled away at that outline. He revised it, organized it, and memorized it. All semester long. When examination day rolled around, he was ready. The class sat down and waited for the teacher to pass out the exam. Sure enough, the only question was "Write a detailed outline of the history and development of English literature." My father began to write. The work and study of the whole semester poured out of his pen. He wrote and wrote and wrote. I think he required the entire time period to complete his outline. At any rate, he handed in the exam and went home. When his class met again to receive their exam grades, his teacher gave back his exam and looked at him "oddly". She asked him where he had gotten the outline. He explained how he had followed her advice from the first day of classes and had worked on his outline all semester. She touched his shoulder and told him he had done well. In fact, he was the only one in his class to pass the exam. Everyone else had to re-take it.  She couldn't give him a 100%, she said, because he'd forgotten John Wycliffe, but she told my father that his was the best outline of the history and development of English literature that she had ever seen.

My father was so proud. He told us this story many times over the years, and I hope he knew how proud we were of him and how he inspired us.

Monday, November 10, 2014

If Those Stones Could Speak

Yesterday was the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Pope Sylvester dedicated the Lateran on November 9, 324 AD. The emperor Constantine had given the Lateran palace to the church in Rome around 311. Why is this such a special church? Isn't Rome full of churches? Why does this one have a feast day?

St. John Lateran is the oldest and most important of the patriarchal basilicas in Rome, and is actually the seat of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). In fact, the popes lived here until they went to Avignon, France, roughly a thousand year stretch. The Lateran is the mother church building for the entire world, It is the cathedral church of Rome in the same way that Holy Name is the cathedral church of Chicago.

The Vandals stripped the basilica of its riches in 455, but Pope Leo I restored it in 460. In 896 it was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. After it was replaced, it survived around 400 years before fire destroyed the building. Clement V and John XXII rebuilt it, but fire destroyed it again in 1360. Urban V rebuilt it during his pontificate. In the latter part of the 17th century, a renovation provided the basilica with more or less its current form.

What a lot of activity in one location! What could those stones tell us if they could speak? What a sweep of Western history just this one building represents. I always imagine the generations of people who have worshiped on this site. After all, over 1700 years have passed since Constantine gave his gift. Most of those who worshiped here through the centuries were ordinary citizens of Rome. This was their parish church in just the same way that Holy Name is the parish church of a particular part of Chicago. Just as Chicago's Cardinal Archbishop celebrates Mass at Holy Name for visitors and parishioners alike, so did the Bishops of Rome (the popes) celebrate Mass at the Lateran for their flock. The stones of the Lateran witnessed terror and vandalism (!) and catastrophic destruction and natural disaster and abandonment and ruin. My goodness. Yet every time, someone rebuilt or restored the basilica.

Whenever I visit a place like the Lateran, the pageant of history sweeps me up. Those stones really do speak!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Turkey Is Not Mandatory

For most of the years we lived in Chicago, we were by ourselves for Thanksgiving. We had no relatives nearby, we couldn't afford to travel to grandparents on either side, and folks just didn't seem to think about including us in family gatherings. A few times family from out of town happened to be with us for the holiday, but usually we were alone. I would gather all the necessary fixings and wrestle with the turkey and ultimately produce a bang-up meal, to everyone's satisfaction. But there is nothing more over than a Thanksgiving dinner with just five people, especially when three of those five people are small children. We would wallow in leftovers and hang out and enjoy the days off, of course, but some years the turkey fiesta seemed like much more work than we wanted. (And there was always the yearly debate about what to do with the turkey carcass!)

This leads to my confession: we didn't always eat turkey and all the trimmings. We ordered Carson's ribs once or twice, and Lou Malnati's pizza also appeared occasionally. I am trying to remember what other substitutes we might have consumed. I'm sure there were a couple of additional breaks from tradition. And we had perfectly satisfactory Thanksgiving meals!! In fact, we probably enjoyed those 'rogue' Thanksgivings a little more because we broke the pattern. I recall some friends being shocked to hear that we had ribs instead of turkey. But honestly, if we still lived in Chicago, I would be sorely tempted to offer ribs from the Gale Street Inn for Thanksgiving!

It's all about the table fellowship anyway, isn't it? We have lovely memories of those very private Thanksgiving meals.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

When Inconceivable Things Happen

Three events occurred in the past 30 years that I never imagined would happen. One will be 'commemorated' this weekend in Berlin. Those of you under 30 might not completely grasp how stunning these events were for those of us born in the early 1950's.

The loss of the Titanic always seemed to be the ultimate unrecoverable maritime disaster. The great ship was gone forever. None of us could begin to imagine that she would ever be found. The great mystery could never be solved. Period. When Robert Ballard and his fellow explorers located her, and broadcast photos of her to the world, I could not really believe what I was seeing. History had reclaimed the Titanic, and she could be explored and marked and salvaged (or at least some of the debris could be). How in the world was this even possible? You will smile to know that I am still amazed when I read articles about the various analyses of data from the exploratory dives. I just can't believe Titanic was ever found.

The other two events concern the downfall and dissolution of the Soviet Union. When the news broke that the Berlin Wall was falling, I felt another shock to my understanding of the world as it was. And later, as country after country separated from the USSR and suddenly the Soviet Union no longer existed, I had to keep looking up at the night sky to make sure that the stars were still in their right places. How in the world was this even possible?

The menace of the Soviet Union colored some of my earliest memories. I just barely remember how the launch of Sputnik disturbed my father. The Cuban Missile Crisis terrified me. I cried myself to sleep during that whole time period because I knew that Norfolk would be an almost certain target. The Soviet Union always scared me to death. (Putin scares me now, too, but that's another story.) Growing up in Tidewater Virginia, I knew very well how the Navy was patrolling and defending us from Soviet submarines. Now, in the early 90's, news of the USSR's disintegration absolutely stunned me. And it all happened so quickly and so relentlessly. Another set of circumstances that were never supposed to be possible.

Symbolic of all this upheaval in the USSR was the removal of the Berlin Wall. I remember very clearly when the wall was erected. We read about it in my third grade class at Westhaven Elementary in Portsmouth. I can still recall the photos in the papers and in our "Weekly Reader" paper at school. The last segment of the Iron Curtain had been placed. Everything behind it was inaccessible, probably forever. I know that's a difficult concept for everyone today. For me, travel to Leipzig or Dresden or Prague or Warsaw or Budapest or even Moscow was 'the impossible dream'. Never going to happen. (And my travel desires were present by the time I hit junior high school!!) Then the world turned upside down, or at least tilted onto a new axis. The menacing, monolithic Soviet Union evaporated, and the countries it dominated were once again free and independent. Both the real and the figurative walls had come down. Inconceivable.

News stories will once again feature the Berlin Wall this weekend, on the 25th anniversary of its fall. If I want to, I can travel throughout all of Eastern Europe. I can even travel to St. Petersburg (which I first knew as Leningrad) or Moscow. And I just might. I could even sail to the location in the North Atlantic beneath whose surface Titanic lies. What was inconceivable to a 20-year-old would be ridiculously easy for a 60-year-old.

Though I still shake my head at these three events, I am encouraged by them. If these inconceivable things could happen, I hope that--no, I believe that-- other inconceivable, wonderful, positive things can also happen. The people involved in these events never gave up hope, despite long years of struggle. I won't give up either!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

My Weakness for British Drama and Comedy

A Netflix subscription can be a dangerous thing, especially an instant viewing package. I have been wallowing in British television over the past two weeks, and justifying this by pointing to the rainy weather preventing me from doing yard work.

First I discovered that the BBC had dramatized some of the Albert Campion mysteries by Margery Allingham. Two seasons, total of nine or ten episodes. I had to watch, because I'm both a fan of Allingham's books and a fan of Peter Davison, who played the Campion character (he was also one of the Doctors in the "Doctor Who" series). Great fun and a lovely romp through 1920s England. The second BBC series was "Keeping Up Appearances", one of my favorites, with 45 episodes available on Netflix. This is a ridiculous and hilarious portrayal of a social climbing, clueless Englishwoman and the adventures/mishaps her scheming and mistakes lead her into. Some of you may know this one. My daughter and I stumbled upon it ages ago and were hooked. Now that I've found it on Netflix, I no longer need to save up and buy the series on DVD!

What attracts me to British drama and comedy? I think it's the feeling that all the actors are part of a great national theatrical ensemble. These men and women appear together in all sorts of productions, ranging from live contemporary theatre to musical comedies to Shakespeare to television to movies to Christmas pantomimes. I envy their versatility and relentless acceptance of new roles.  Many of them studied in the same schools (such as the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts) and 'paid their dues' in the same types of regional theatres. They seem to practice their craft everywhere and all the time. They never seem to rest on their laurels or disappear into posh estates out in the countryside. Most of all, they seem to be enjoying the daylights out of performing. While many are supremely talented and awe-inspiring performers, they seem almost like the kinds of friends who would come over for a visit and say 'why don't we dress up and put on a play in the backyard?'.

Of course, I must mention my two favorite actors before I close. I would watch Judi Dench in anything. Full stop. And Maggie Smith is a close second. Check out the film they did together in 2004, "Ladies in Lavender". It wasn't a blockbuster, but has its charm, and gives us an opportunity to see these two matchless pros demonstrate acting that seems 'as natural as breathing' (to quote Roger Ebert). I can't think of an American actress who, in her 70s, would allow herself to be filmed looking her age or older. Dench and Smith are fearless. If you think about the remarkable variety of roles they have played in their careers, you'll understand what I mean about the versatility of the British acting community.

Perhaps on my next trip to London Town I will be able to see a few live theatre performances. Now that would be a delight!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Exercising My Franchise

Just out the door to vote, but needed to post a quick little reflection. Oddly enough, I am always excited to cast a ballot. Do any of you remember the thrill of voting for the first time? I was in the first group of young Americans who were eligible to vote at age 18. What a time! We could vote, and the legal drinking age for beer was 18 as well. For us, the rationale was 'if you are old enough to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, you are old enough to vote and to have a beer'. I felt so important when I went to the city offices in downtown Portsmouth to register to vote. It was a big deal. My first opportunity to cast a ballot was in Virginia in the 1972 elections (Nixon vs McGovern). Subsequently I have voted in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Indiana. In all the years since then, I have missed only a handful of elections. I always vote. I never take this privilege for granted. I am profoundly grateful for the sacrifices others have made so that I may vote, by a secret ballot, unthreatened, and with no other requirements than citizenship.

Part of this enthusiasm stems from my parents' examples. They always voted. Every election, national or local, as long as they were physically able. Of course, they joked that their votes cancelled each other's out, since they generally voted on opposite sides of national issues! But they voted. I'm not sure it ever occurred to them not to vote. With such witnesses, how could I not follow suit? I do hope, dear readers, that you share my feelings of pride and gratitude as you head to your polling places and cast your ballots.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A school full of witnesses

Although it would be appropriate to comment on All Saints' Day or All Souls' Day, I want to talk about a conference I attended yesterday.  Bear with me!

The Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame presents a conference each autumn, addressing different topics each year. This year's theme was "Your Light Will Rise in the Darkness: Responding to the Cry of the Poor". An impressive and varied list of presenters and panels confronted me. I always take away unexpected insights and interpretations, and this year was no exception. Yet, the presentation I will remember most was a film, not a live speaker.

"The Rule" is a documentary about the mission of a Benedictine abbey in the heart of Newark, New Jersey. Who knew there was a monastery in Newark? It dates back to the mid-1800's, and has operated a boys' high school for nearly that long. St. Benedict Prep became the 'must attend' school for many middle class boys in the Newark area until the late 1960's. Some of you will remember how riots tore apart quite a few cities in 1967 and 1968. Newark suffered waves of violence in that time, and the neighborhood surrounding the monastery began to change in ways we can all imagine. The student population of St. Benedict Prep began to shrink dramatically, and to include more students of color than white students. You can see the writing on the wall, can't you? Part of the monastic community wanted to close the school completely, due to failing enrollments and other reasons. Finally a group of the Benedictines left the abbey altogether. This film chronicles the efforts of the remaining monks to re-open St. Benedict Prep and provide education and structure for hundreds of young men in center-city Newark.

As I watched the film, I realized what powerful witnesses the monks AND the staff AND the students were. The care, compassion, and love which every adult demonstrated transformed these boys into young men. St. Benedict Prep practices tough love and accountability and encouragement. Their sports programs round out the school's high academic standards. The students manage themselves and most of the school's issues through a system of mentors and leaders. What I saw and heard enthralled me. The monks of the abbey walk with their students through predictably rough situations and offer a safe haven amid sometimes dangerous surroundings. The lay teachers and professional staff bring understanding and empathy and counseling to every single student. Theirs are not easy jobs, but this film conveyed the real love and hope that animate St. Benedict Prep.

St. Benedict Prep's growth hasn't been easy or smooth. Trial and error have caused some bumps in the road. But the monks and staff persevere and pray. Truly, the abbey's light has risen in the darkness of the hard streets of Newark. This is a school full of witnesses.

If you'd like to learn more, here's a link:

Friday, October 31, 2014

Don't forget Mother Nature

Our Halloween weather today could not have been more fitting: stormy, cold, wet, windy, grey. I needed to drive in and out of Chicago one more time, finalizing some repairs on our condo before the new tenants move in tomorrow. The drive to Chicago in mid-morning proved a challenge insofar as the high winds were concerned, but conditions were dry. By the time I got into town, however, there was a steady mixture of rain and sleet and snow. The wind continued to gust quite fiercely as I drove north along Lake Shore Drive. Lake Michigan tossed and rolled and smote the shoreline and the breakwaters with mesmerizing strength. I wanted to keep my eyes on all that lake activity, but it also seemed important to keep the car under control!

Later in the afternoon I headed back south along the drive. Weather conditions were worse. In fact, as I left our condo to load my bits and bobs into the car, I had to struggle against wind-driven sleet. It made me remember the line 'Tain't a fit night out for man nor beast from an old W.C. Fields film.  The southbound journey kept me busy controlling the car. Traffic was lashed by powerful wind gusts that drove an astonishing amount of sleet onto the cars. And all the while, every time the road approached the actual shore of Lake Michigan, I could see the grey, angry waves washing over the beaches. I think I like Lake Michigan best when storms drive it into Chicago.

It's easy to forget how fickle and dangerous open water can be. The beaches that stretch so invitingly in the summer disappeared today. And the harbors in which the boats ride safely in good weather rocked and rolled from the wind-driven waves. Mother Nature put on quite a spectacle today.

The final, entertaining touch, however, occurred whilst I was battling my car on the Indiana Tollway, heading home. My hands welded themselves to the steering wheel, as those dangerously high winds rocked the car pretty strongly. While I fought that battle, the sleet pelted everything relentlessly and a flotilla of semis hemmed me in. Nerve-wracking? Indeed. But, here's the entertainment: as I'm desperately focused on safely navigating this patch, WFMT Chicago begins broadcasting Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries"! Yes, indeed, the perfect soundtrack for my own wild ride. I felt like Freya herself!

I laughed and let loose a few Valkyrie-inspired whoops and drove on.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Driving back to Indiana from Chicago today, I had to stop for the opening and closing of a bridge down around 89th Street. This part of the south side of Chicago is its "port", where quite large ships bring in various types of cargo from Lake Michigan. It's the one area of Chicago that reminds me of Tidewater Virginia. I'm always interested to see what type of ship is causing the bridge to be opened. Today's traffic delighted me! And I was probably the only one in the line of cars feeling delighted.

The boat harbors along Chicago's lakeshore empty out at this time of year (I think they officially close on November 1st), and the boats' owners must move them into winter storage. Guess where much of this winter storage is? Exactly. Just past my bridge. So I was treated to the migration of six sailboats of varying sizes as they motored from Lake Michigan inland on the Calumet River to their winter homes. As they went upriver, a tug passed them, heading out into the lake, pushing a ponderous barge full of shipping containers. I think I must start bringing my camera along in the car--the afternoon sun bathed the whole scene in autumn's glow and those sailboats were worth a photo.

Whenever I've had the opportunity to spend time sailing, I haven't wanted to come ashore. Nothing really equals the way a sailboat speeds up and heels over when the sails fill, when you hear only the swish of the water as the boat cuts through. A sailboat is alive in a way that a power boat never could be.

I often wish I had even a small sailboat here, because South Bend is near quite a few inland lakes and is only a short drive to Lake Michigan. My family and friends always talk me out of it (quite prudently, of course). They also talk me out of buying a Vespa, but that's another issue. I console myself with the thought that my cousin Charles owns a satisfyingly large sailboat back in Tidewater and I can sail with him.

The boat I would really like to own would be a Hampton class, a two-person open cockpit sailboat developed in Hampton Roads back in the 1930s. My Uncle Jeff, who was a born sailor, sailed and raced them with the Portsmouth Boat Club when I was growing up. I loved to watch. It comforts me to know that the Hampton Yacht Club still has a fleet of Hampton boats that race frequently in the area, and that I actually could buy a new Hampton if I wanted to.

Here's a tip for an enchanting series of books featuring sailing: the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome. Ransome based the stories on his own childhood experiences. He writes about several groups of children who spend their school holidays learning to sail in the Lake District in England during the 1930s. My daughter and I discovered the books decades ago, and I re-read them every so often. If you have children, I recommend them. If you like a solid but charming narrative, regardless of your age, I heartily recommend them. The boys and girls in the books mix sailing with all sorts of imaginative and independent play. They are good shipmates, warm friends, brave souls, and incredibly practical to boot.

The Swallows and the Amazons taught me that a good ship needs a good crew. A good crew knows how to work together, how to respect the strengths of each member, and how to balance their focus on the job at hand with their pleasure in being on the sea.

I hope I get caught by a boat parade next time I drive to Chicago!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Seas of Red

I have been thinking lately about one of the most arresting and haunting commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Over the past several months, hundreds of thousands of ceramic red poppies have been installed in the moat surrounding the Tower of London. There will be over 888,000 poppies by November 11th. These represent the members of the armies of the British Empire who died during the war. The name of this commemoration is "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red". Over the weeks, the poppies have "spilled" out of one of the Tower's windows and have gradually filled up the entire moat. In the most recent photos,  the Tower is surrounded by a 'sea of red'.  I am awestruck by the artist's idea for this project and I wish I could actually visit the Tower itself. A moat filled with blood. Each poppy representing someone's father, son, husband, brother, cousin, or friend.

I have hiked through some of the battlefields of World War I in Flanders. I have walked through Tyne Cot cemetery and seen the "crosses row on row". I have visited cemeteries filled with German soldiers' graves. I have stood at the Menin Gate in Ypres and read the names of the missing. No one can stand in those places and be unmoved.

Many, many historians have analyzed and described World War I over the past century. The soldiers and sailors and airmen are now often viewed as pathetic 'victims'.  I choose rather to salute their courage and sacrifice and brotherhood in the face of unimaginable terror and certain death.

How different the 20th century would have been if this had truly been the "war to end all wars", if only the Great War had made us wiser. The sanguinary spectacle at the Tower of London is an unforgettable witness.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Witness of Grace


One of my favorite phrases from the New Testament is "so great a cloud of witnesses", from the letter to the Hebrews. As I was converting some treasured family VHS tapes to DVDs recently, I began to think about the kinds of witnesses that have appeared in my life. What better way to comment on them and perhaps to share some of the insights from them than to start a blog?

My thoughts will be wide-ranging, to be sure, because I have, now that I think of it, lived a long life already and have heard and seen witnesses of all types. You, dear readers, may expect comments about faith, family, friends, art, architecture, music, literature, gardening, travel, storytelling, history, and nature. I will enjoy sharing whatever wisdom has come to me from my own great cloud of witnesses.

As it is my Aunt Grace's 88th birthday today, let me just share some thoughts about her. First of all, she is a survivor of three types of cancer, all within the last 15 years. That is a staggering witness in and of itself. She has the most positive attitude and has coped with surgeries and alopecia and gradually diminishing mobility. Nonetheless, she and my Uncle Bob still regularly visit local restaurants, go to the latest movies (she is way ahead of me on that!), enjoy social gatherings with friends, and travel. She never complains to us, never falls prey to hopelessness, and never exhibits a "why me?" response to all of these challenges. What a witness to the power of love and hope! Talking to her today, I learned that she's recently been doing one of the "Great Courses", using CDs, to brush up on the Latin she studied in high school. Soon she'll be doing a course on music theory. She puts me to shame!

What else has she taught me? She has lived her name so beautifully: grace. As a Navy wife, she moved frequently, managing long deployments of my uncle with patience and strength. She always seemed to look for the interesting and positive features of each new city, and her friends are legion. She kept a welcoming and lovely home at every stop, and even today is hospitality itself, despite her physical challenges. Perhaps the roughest part of her life was the birth and death of her second child, my cousin George. He lived only a few months. I know from my own experience how this shatters a mother. Yet my aunt picked up the pieces and showed us how to move through the valley of the shadow. I drew on her witness when my own daughter died shortly after birth.

Aren't I blessed with such an aunt? And hasn't her life borne witness to her faith? I have a high standard to emulate.