Monday, February 23, 2015

Special Intentions and Lent

I miss many things about teaching high school girls. The 12 years I taught at Mother Guerin High School in Chicago brought joys and sorrows, easy days and challenging days, wonderfully inspiring colleagues, and the opportunity to teach and to learn from an amazing parade of young women. Those students enriched my life far more than they'll ever know, and I have tried to keep in contact with as many as I can, watching them blossom into teachers and mothers and lawyers and doctors and artists and performers and accountants and business owners and so much more. I thank God for every single one of them.

Of course, there was drama every day in classes full of girls. A lot of drama. Some of it manufactured by the nature of adolescence, some of it produced by situations in life outside school. Every day was different; every day carried the possibility of emotional turmoil.

I taught theology: church history, church doctrine, morality, social justice, and world history. Many aspects of my students' lives connected with the range of topics we would cover. Actually, as far as I was concerned, every aspect of their lives and mine connected with what we were studying. I frequently got to know a different side of my students' personalities precisely because we touched the essential, basic questions that every person asks herself or himself.

The first few minutes of class allowed each student to give a little hint of what was on her mind each day. We always began our classes with prayer and students took turns leading those prayers. While that student chose what to say in a more formal prayer, I would ask all her classmates, one by one, to tell us some particular thing they would like us to pray for. We called these "special intentions". If I had a prayer request, I would add mine, too. After each student had mentioned her intention (if she wanted to or had one), the prayer leader gathered all those up in the opening prayer.

I think that "special intentions" remain one of the most enduring memories of my former students. Some were more sincere and serious than others! (I have prayed for countless boyfriends over the years, with the result that I could probably still tell you names of long-since-dumped fellows.) Sometimes the girls would pray for one of their classmates with no specific reason given. If this happened repeatedly, I took it as a warning that something was going wrong in that student's life, and I looked for ways to help her. Students would ask for prayers for family members, which would give me clues that on-going worried or sad expressions might mean some serious news on the horizon. On the whole, I think "special intentions" gave each class deeper connections that helped us all to get through the days and weeks.

Teaching five or six classes each day meant that I paused for prayer every hour of the school day. I thought about this recently while gathering my spiritual resources and planning my Lenten observances. I prayed every hour of the school day. How have I missed the significance of that? Granted, these prayers were short and I certainly couldn't block out the distractions of managing a classroom full of teenage girls, but we prayed together and we lifted up our concerns together to God. Now that I'm no longer in the classroom, I certainly don't stop for prayer at the beginning of every hour. And I have only just realized how much I am missing.

So here is my Lenten plan. I am stopping to pray every hour during "working hours". (I have no excuse not to, because I don't have the outside distraction of work to hinder me!) I have a little list of my own "special intentions" that I want to lift up, and, as a connection to all those beloved students over the years, I am using Facebook to discover what joys and sorrows and challenges some of them are facing every day. I add specific intentions for them, too.

May I say that this has already proved a great blessing to me? I know that I am going to try to continue after Lent is over. There are so many "special intentions" needing an extra prayer.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Family Remedies

A few days ago I was watching a re-run of "The Golden Girls". (Yes, we are snowbound here, and the episode just caught my fancy!) It featured a character who was a pharmacist in a small drugstore, and it highlighted very briefly his wider role in helping his customers with health care. That started my thinking about how rare small, independent pharmacies are nowadays. We all take our prescriptions to CVS or Osco or Walgreens or Rite Aid or Walmart, and, while the pharmacists are always helpful, we don't have any kind of on-going relationship with them. They don't know us. I usually even go to the drive-through outside.

 How do the 'little guys' stay in business? I imagine some have ventured into the specialized prescriptions markets, where they make customized, specific medications for particular, rare cases. Some probably hang on by providing just that high-quality, personal service they always have, even in changing neighborhoods.

I am pleased to report that the neighborhood pharmacy my parents used while we were growing up still occupies the same spot and still provides high-quality personal service to its customers.How do I know this? I visit at least once a year when I am in Portsmouth.

The pharmacy is called Suburban Pharmacy and sits on Rodman Avenue in the Westhaven area. (This was once suburban Portsmouth!) When I was a child, there was also a soda fountain in the store, complete with the real Coca-Cola served up in a glass by a soda jerk. (There might have been other things available, but Cokes were all we ever bought there!) My mother would put my baby brother and my sister in our beautiful red Radio Flyer wagon and I would walk beside her as we made our exciting pilgrimage several blocks to Suburban. We were usually pretty warm by the time we arrived, and I well remember how cool and shady the air conditioned pharmacy felt. We would leave the wagon outside and hop up on the stools at the fountain counter. For 20 cents all four of us could have our own icy, delicious Co-Cola. What a treat!!

At other, less happy times, of course, my parents filled all those prescriptions so necessary to fight our childhood illnesses. We kept the pharmacists busy for quite a few years. Even when we moved across the river to Churchland, we still filled prescriptions at Suburban, although there came a time when we switched to our nearby independent Churchland Pharmacy. (Interestingly, this also had a soda fountain, well into the 1970s.)

But I haven't filled prescriptions at Suburban in 40 years. Why in the world do I visit it when I'm in town?

S.T. 37.

This is not a code or a password. I have not been abducted by aliens. S.T. 37 is the brand name of a genuine liquid antiseptic that the Harrison family has used for more than 100 years. It is our family's tried and true healing agent, good for all sorts of scrapes and burns and wounds and sore throats. It really is good in any situation where you want to prevent infections. My Grandmother Harrison used it on everyone in her family, including the goats! (More on that in a moment.) I keep a bottle in my medicine cabinet all the time. When each of my children went off to college, I sent along a bottle of S.T. 37 and some Band Aids. Now that each child is established and living independently, I try to make sure there is S.T. 37 in the house. (That reminds me--I need to be sure there is a bottle nearby for the twins.) I took along a bottle when we went to Princeton last year for our sabbatical. S.T. 37 is a colorless, liquid antiseptic that doesn't stain, isn't greasy, and has a pleasant taste if you need to use it for mouth care. We used it for every injury or infection, and it's a blessed relief to sunburn. I swear by it.

And that's why I visit Suburban Pharmacy. It's the only place we can still find S.T. 37 on the shelves. Usually there are two bottles, and I buy them both! My sister still does the same, and my brother as well. Although it is now possible to order S.T. 37 from Amazon (!), I try to patronize Suburban Pharmacy as often as I can to encourage their stock of S.T. 37. Since I grew up with the owner and pharmacist, I also like to say hello when I'm clearing out their supply of S.T. 37. I'm due to replenish my supply the next time I'm in Portsmouth.

Now, the goat story. My father's family owned two goats when living in the Oakwood area of Raleigh. They were named Nanny and Billy. My grandfather had made a wonderful see-saw/merry-go-round device for his children in the backyard of the property, and this fascinated the goats. Once, Nanny walked too far up one arm of the see-saw, and when it began to tilt in the opposite direction, her hoof was caught between a metal washer and the wood. She suffered a nasty cut on her little hoof. My grandmother scooped her up and took her in the house, where she bathed the cut, dried it, poured S.T.37 on it, and bandaged it.  She repeated this for several days. My father told us that after a week, the cut healed completely. You can see why we children were so impressed with S.T. 37 and why we wanted it applied to every hurt we had! (Nanny stayed away from the see-saw from thence forward.)

When I need to use S.T. 37, I like to think that my grandmother used it for her family the same way that my parents used it for our family the same way I used it for my family. And if you ever nick yourself or scrape your knee when you're visiting me, I will use S.T. 37 on you! Guaranteed cure.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Good Box

My brother and sister and I recently spent two weeks winnowing out our parents' possessions. This process has been sporadic over the five years since our father died and the two years since our mother's death. We have made progress but have much, much more to do.

The "Greatest Generation" left behind lots of stuff. Probably everyone who grew up during the Great Depression saved everything they could. At least it seems that way to us. You can imagine the sorts of things we're sifting through, but I want to tell you about a wonderful remnant of our father's organizational system.

Our father loved a good box. This stretched all the way back to his boyhood, according to stories he told us. Of course, in the 20's and 30's, shipping boxes were wooden crates. My father and his brothers would get boxes/crates from the neighborhood groceries and then use the wood for all sorts of treehouses and carts and scooters and whatever they could imagine. (I think it would be a similar passion to that of folks who make incredible things out of wooden pallets today.) When the family had to move to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in the early 30's, my father stockpiled wooden boxes in the back yard of their house. He remembered it as a giant pile of boxes. Alas, when the family moved back south, the boxes remained behind. I think Daddy regretted that the rest of his life!

The boxes that his children remember best still fill part of the garage in our parents' home. These are cigar boxes.

 We have an incredible number of cigar boxes left over.

Daddy had a deal with the snack bar/canteen near the Main Gate of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, where he worked for 35 years. The proprietor saved the empty cigar boxes and my father would bring home a fresh batch every few weeks.

We always had lots of cigar boxes. Lots. Daddy didn't part with his boxes easily, however. Only a few times in my elementary school career did he actually let me have a box to put in my lift-top desk for my pencils and crayons. I took very good care of those boxes.

The beauty of it all is that Daddy used these boxes to put all kinds of tools, parts, and accessories at his finger tips. He labeled each cigar box according to its contents. It was a brilliantly simple system.

When my sister or I load the washing machine at our parents' home (now hers), we can look up at shelf after shelf of cigar boxes on the wall above, clearly labeled by our father. There must be 75 boxes on those shelves. The labels include random parts for every automobile he every owned, repair kits for household items, glues--just an incredible assortment of necessary items. Boxes also sit on the shelves above my father's workbench. One day recently my brother needed some particular screws for a project at that house. He looked at me and said, "I know where I can find a screw like that." Off to the garage he went. In a few short minutes, he returned, carrying a cigar box neatly labeled "small metric screws". Of course, what he needed lay inside, stored decades ago by Daddy.

As our father grew older, he spent less and less time in his garage workshop. There was quite a stockpile of cigar boxes still unused, which would probably remain unused. I began to lobby for a gift of a few cigar boxes to take back to Chicago each summer. This proved challenging. Finally, when my son and I were preparing to return to Chicago after our visit one summer just a year or two before my father died, I succeeded in 'liberating' a stash of cigar boxes. Daddy told me I could have them, but as my son and I were carrying them from the garage to load into the car, my father jumped up from his chair in the living room, grabbed his walker, and shot out onto the front porch to see how many we were taking away! He hated to see them go. I understood.

I like a good box, too. I especially like a good cigar box. When I lived in Chicago, I found a cigar store that sold wooden cigar boxes for $1 (I think). I occasionally treated myself. I am my father's daughter, without a doubt.

You see, cigar boxes are such a brilliantly useful storage system. I use those really nice wooden boxes to keep some of my embroidery projects tidy. The boxes look quite interesting, stacked on a table. And my on-going project in our basement here in South Bend is to use those cigar boxes that I 'liberated' from my father's stash as a storage system for all those bits and bobs that I need to put where I can find them. I have built three shelves over my craft table, and on these shelves the cigar box organization system is slowly emerging.

 Imagine needing staples for your heavy duty staple gun and being able to find a cigar box labeled "staple gun staples". Or some similar item that you need occasionally but that is awkward to store. My solution? A cigar box.

It's brilliantly simple.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Snowman Snow

The front page story in today's Chicago Tribune discussed the different types of snow found across the U.S. and described the author's quest for information on where to find the best snow for making snowmen. What a delightful topic! I learned all kinds of things about the variable water content of snow, and carefully studied a map of the U.S. showing where 'snowman snow' most frequently falls. Guess what I found? I grew up in exactly the right part of the country for almost all snowfalls to be 'snowman snow'. Even though southeastern Virginia doesn't receive heavy snow very often, there is usually at least one substantial snow each season.

My sister and brother and I made some dandy snowmen in our time! One of my favorite pictures from my earliest years shows toddler me all bundled up in my darling snowsuit, standing delightedly beside an enormous snowman that my parents and our neighbor, Bobby Cook, had just completed in our backyard. For all of us, a decent snowfall meant fun building snowmen and having snowball fights.

Fast forward, if you will, to our little family's first winter in Chicago. My daughter was 3 1/2. We had lived in Charlottesville, Virginia her entire life, and had plenty of experience with both heavy snowfalls and good snowman snow. Naturally, we were elated when the first good snowstorm of the season covered Chicago with about 6 inches of snow. Time for our first Chicago snowman!! I stuffed my daughter into her Chicago-worthy red snowsuit, got myself thoroughly wrapped in my own winter gear, searched out our gloves and mittens and boots, and then she and I clambered down the three flights of stairs to the backyard of the 3-flat.

We stepped outside into a beautiful world. Pristine snow all around. Remember how much fun it is to make the first tracks in the snow? We had a good time doing that. Then both of us were ready to make the snowman. My daughter stood by, expectantly. I bent over and began to scoop up snow to form the initial snowball to roll around the yard and form the base of the snowman. But wait--something was catastrophically wrong. The snow wouldn't pack. I couldn't make a snowball to save my life. I would gather up handfuls of snow and they would just blow away in the wind.

What kind of snow was this?

My daughter looked at me and said "What's wrong with the snow?" I looked at her and said "I don't know. I've never seen any snow like this. I can't make a snowball."

We looked at each other in dismay and disappointment. The joy of our first Chicago snow fled as quickly as a snowman on a hot, sunny day. I just didn't understand this dry snow. I had moved to a truly alien environment. (Can you tell that I have never skied?)

We salvaged the morning by making snow angels, and of course had lots of fun throwing snow powder at each other. But the memory lingers.

My children grew up with very few opportunities to make snowmen, or even to throw real snowballs. No pictures of them standing proudly in adorable snowsuits beside enormous, wonderful snowmen. I don't, in fact, think there are any pictures of them with snowmen, although my son assures me that he at least remembers making one snowman when we lived in Lincoln Square in Chicago. My grandchildren, living in the same part of the country, will have only a few chances in their childhoods to make snowmen or snowballs.

I am resigned to winters with no snowmen, even though I have lived through some pretty significant snowstorms out here in the Midwest. Every now and then there is a storm that brings snowman snow, but those are rare and not to be counted on. So I shovel the white stuff from the sidewalks and admire the way the snow adorns the woods behind our house and growl at the ugly piles left by the snowplows, but I have yet to make a snowman here in Indiana. What a waste of all this snow!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Queens and Cathedrals and Pealing Bells

York Cathedral (York Minster) caught me by surprise. My daughter and I had just arrived in York and had begun walking uphill from the train station to the Minster. The August sun boiled down on us, because this was one of the hottest summers on record in Britain. We both carried backpacks that enclosed substantial "stuff" and were tired after our train journey from the London area. But we needed to climb our way up to the Minster before we could turn off towards the youth hostel.

It was just about mid-day. 4 August 1990. I hadn't realized this was the Queen Mother's 90th birthday. So I wasn't quite prepared for what suddenly began. All the bells of York Minster began to peal. They rang and rang and rang, in that peculiarly English art form known as change-ringing. My daughter and I didn't know what to make of it. The peal continued the entire time we walked toward the Minster, and I was awe-struck. We don't hear change-ringing over here in the U.S.  In fact, folks don't seem to like to hear church bells ring much at all. I couldn't follow the cascading notes of the bells very well, but suffice it to say there was a breath-taking precision to the rolling sequences of the bells. If my memory serves me correctly, I think this peal continued for three hours that day, in honor of the Queen Mother. It was beautiful.

My daughter and I just found a bench outside and caught our breaths for a little while, letting the music of the peal sweep over us. Once rested, we decided to take a peek inside the Minster, just to get a first look before coming back later to explore it. (Those backpacks were heavy loads.) We climbed up the steps and entered under the incredibly detailed portals. Inside, the Minster gave us a lovely respite from the heat and bright sunlight outside.

Dim and cool and reaching high above our heads, the cathedral overwhelmed me. Some of you may have heard of or even seen the stained glass windows of York Minster. As I walked farther into the nave, I looked up and beheld the sunlight streaming through such wonders as the "Seven Sisters of York". Then I experienced something that was an entirely new sensation for me. I began to weep at the beauty around me. Keep in mind that the pealing bells continued to ring, though somewhat muted inside. I had to sit down! My daughter didn't quite understand what was happening, and I certainly didn't. We both sat there until I composed myself. I will never forget those moments. I never imagined that art and architecture had such power over me.

My daughter and I came back the next day without our backpacks and explored every inch of the Minster that we could!!

Needless to say, I associated York Minster with the Queen Mother from that point on. (She and her husband, later King George VI, had been the Duke and Duchess of York before he ascended to the throne, so York loved them both in a special way.) I 'celebrated' her 100th birthday here at home, but imagined the pealing bells of the Minster ringing out in even greater tribute to her. Even before my visit, I had admired and enjoyed news of the Queen Mother, and I remained a 'fan' of her till she died.

I am an even bigger 'fan' of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. She and my mother were born one month apart, and in our family we have always thought my mother and the queen looked like sisters. Today marks the 63rd anniversary of the beginning of her reign, and it seemed fitting to think of these two Elizabeths today.

God save her majesty! And God grant that I might still find myself overwhelmed by beauty in unexpected places.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

So Much Still to Learn

On these cold, snowy winter days when it's dangerous to be outside, I watch some of the zillions of channels available on TV. Many times I am watching programs that feature history-related topics. Two days ago I found myself watching a program about the Mexican Revolution. I learned so much in that single hour that I have felt ashamed ever since.

Why do I know so very little about Mexican history? I am a glutton for history. American history has always been my special field. I read new books about it all the time. I am also pretty well-versed in world history, even including Africa. I'm conversant with Canadian history, too. Yet I knew so little about what I saw in this documentary that I was stunned and appalled. Further reflection showed my general  ignorance of the history of Central and South America, too, once I moved past the conquistadors, the film "The Mission", Simon Bolivar, and the Panama Canal. Really, how pathetic is that?

My mind is not a complete blank about these topics, of course, but there is plenty of room for further information. I don't imagine that I'm alone in my ignorance of the history of the nations that lie south of the Rio Grande. When I taught church history in Chicago, I did include lessons about the spread of Catholic Christianity through the Franciscan missions, and of course the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but I never pursued an examination of any more recent history.

Now I feel compelled to bring my knowledge up to date. I need to understand Mexico more. I need to examine how Mexico's history has shaped her and how Mexico's past continues to affect her future. I have so many former students and friends who proudly celebrate their Mexican heritage, and I am so ignorant of all the threads woven into that cultural tapestry. If I am ever fortunate enough to travel to Mexico, I want to be able to appreciate the whole country, and not just the resort beaches!

I have a feeling that my library visits are going to focus on an entirely new section of shelves!