The Christmas Card Pail, Revisited

This post (in its original form) first appeared in February this year, as I grieved my father’s death. In some spiritual traditions, one formally mourns a lost loved one for a year. This year, I have done my grieving publicly, using this blog as my vehicle of mourning, first for my father, then, unexpectedly, for my best friend. In just a few weeks, with one final post, Dad’s journey will be completed. Thank you, followers and readers, for walking this rocky path with me.

Shortly after taking down my Christmas tree and decorations, I start on my “First of Year Clean Out”. This event is separate and distinct from my spring cleaning, although a similar form of madness. But instead of attacking all the textiles—laundering curtains and pillows, blankets and throw rugs and quilts—and vacuuming, mopping and dusting little used or seen nooks and crannies and knick-knacks—instead of that, I attack paperwork. Rustling through the file cabinet, I toss old receipts and outdated files. I shred and sort and reassemble hard copy paperwork. Sifting through computer files, I delete mounds of unnecessary junk. Finally, I remove the big blue, oval carnival glass bowl from my china cabinet; the bowl where I have stored every card and note received during the previous year. Riffling through it, I remove all the birthday, thank you, get well, or various other cards that I’ve stored there. I read through them once more, appreciating and enjoying their messages. Then I return only a select few, the most precious of these, to the bowl before dropping the rest into the paper recycling bin.

CardBasket

But there is one group of cards which is never to be found in the carnival glass bowl: my Christmas cards. Far fewer these days, as rising postage costs deter sending cards, while for two years and some, quarantines, virus and lockdowns have prevented people from venturing out to purchase them, these cards, once read and enjoyed, are dropped into a winter white bucket, festively painted and decorated. At the end of Yuletide, when I “take down the Christmas”, I never remove my cards from the pail. Instead, cards and all, the bucket goes into storage with all the other decorations, awaiting another Christmas season.

Months later, on a day soon after Thanksgiving, the card pail again sees the light of day. Extracting it from where it lies nestled in the tub of garland and stockings, I take a break from my decorating and curl into an armchair, the container in my hands. Then, slowly, almost reverently, I remove the old cards and begin to reread them. Each is opened appreciatively as I scan handwritten messages and look at now-year-old enclosed family photos. Sometimes I re-read a letter included with the card, marveling at how much, and how little, has changed in the passing eleven months.

And often, I cry. For there, huddled within the standard, jolly or religious holiday greetings, lurks nostalgia and a touch of old pain: the card, cards, from those who have passed away during the intervening months. I open the pressboard to find and touch the loops and whorls of their signatures, once familiar, now never to be seen again.

One year, tears slipping down the curve of my face, I reread the letter, sent by surviving family members, describing the last weeks of a friend’s life. Denied (if he left the area of his medical service network) the dialysis he needed to survive, he went on one last vacation anyway, travelling to Hawaii for a few weeks. There he spent his final days in lush and gorgeous surroundings before returning home to close his eyes and die. I’d read this information in shock and dismay the year prior; this time I read it in renewed sadness, once more saying goodbye to a good and kind man.

In 2021, as I scanned the cards, I found included a host of pet sympathy cards, sent to comfort me for the loss of my best little cat just a few days prior to Christmas 2020. Bittersweet reminders of my sweet, mink-furred Bella hid there amongst the holiday greetings, drawing yet another tear or two and a sigh from the depths of my heart. I opened, too, the last Christmas card my father would ever send me—a simple card, probably a freebie received from one of the charities he supported. “Dad and Lucy Cat” he had signed it—the very Lucy cat whom I and other family members had spent six months looking after, as he slipped from hospital to care facility to death.

And so it was that this November I pulled the card pail out from the tub where it lay nested in garland and stockings. Carrying it to the new, uncomfortable armchair (the comfy old dark green one having gone to decrepit furniture heaven), I pulled out a card featuring an impossibly cheesy, adorable kitten peering from a Christmas stocking, and opened it to brush my fingertips one final time across the signature of my late, loved friend, Reneé. Cat Lady. “Reneé, Cymon, and Raja” the signature read, naming her beloved Sphinx and Persian cats as one would any family members, and I held the card to my heart for just a moment in a final goodbye to the very best friend of my lifetime.

Then, hands shaking just a little, I extracted all the condolence cards sent to comfort me for the loss of my father just a few days before Christmas during the 2021 holiday season. I mourned his passing once more, and then laughed a little, remembering how very much my Dad (although he would never say why!) hated Christmas! I recalled how, bringing a tiny decorated tree to him at his care facility, I was berated and scolded and told to “Get that thing the hell out of here!” I laughed one final time, shaking my head and rolling my eyes, considering his similarity to the pre-ghost Scrooge.

And then I placed them all, holiday greetings and expressions of sympathy, into the recycling bin, and, returning to my pleasant Christmas decorating, moved on.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Taking Down the Christmas”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from January 3, 2020

The Marvelous Toy

Now nearly 100 years old, the wooden baby doll crib has survived for another generation.

One of my mother’s finest qualities was her absolute lack of racial prejudice. Troubled as she was in many ways, Betty had not a racially biased bone in her body. She always attributed her attitude—so unusual for a person born in Indiana in 1930—to having been, while a very young teen, the babysitter for a Black infant. The neighborhood in which Mom grew up was racially diverse, and the baby’s mother was forced to go out to work as a house cleaner for wealthier families. She paid my then-teenage Mom a very welcome pittance to watch her infant. My mother always explained that the experience of caring for that Black child made her realize that skin color was merely that—color—and that we are all, each of us, just members of the human family.

Mom had been born right at the start of the Great Depression; her family of nine children was poor. There was no money in their household for any luxury. When she was a very small child, though, the local fire department sponsored a Christmas used-toy drive for children in need. One of the gifts they collected was a wooden doll crib. Refurbished by the firefighters, the doll crib became my mother’s Christmas gift that year. She and her sisters each played with their few dolls in the crib.

In due time, when I was a tiny child myself, the wooden crib (given a fresh coat of gleaming white paint by my Fire Chief paternal grandfather; firefighters are handy people!) was passed along to me. In keeping with the beliefs that my mother wished to convey to me, two dolls lay snuggled in that crib in the corner of my bedroom: Lisa, my life-size baby doll, and Amosandra, my Black Amos ‘n Andy doll (whose unfortunate name was my Dad’s contribution—he thought it was just funny as hell. That was Dad for you.)

When I outgrew dolls, the little white crib was abandoned forlornly in the attic. But years later it came down once more, to be played with by my own daughter, who, yes, had a Black babydoll nestled there with her other dolls. As she later marched off to middle and high school and college, the crib went to rest in Mom and Dad’s attic once again.

Decades passed, and the circle of life turned. First Mom, and later Dad died, and my brother, cleaning out the attic of Dad’s home, discovered the doll crib.

Now nearly 100 years old, the crib had survived the harsh hot-and-cold environment of the attic quite well. The wood was not warped; the metal screws had not rusted. The crib had been greatly beloved and well-treated by multiple sets of childish hands; it was in excellent condition, although badly faded and yellowed. Even the little quilt that my mother had hand-pieced for the crib had survived.

And so I brought the doll crib home once more, to be given to my own little granddaughter. Her tiny bedroom was so stuffed with toys already that there was no room for the crib; but she was in my home every week for childcare—my living room looked like a Toys ‘r Us!–so I parked the doll crib unobtrusively in a corner, where Morrigan joyously discovered it. I had washed the quilt and sewed a pillow, and now her three baby dolls—two white and one brown, in keeping with family tradition—cuddled under one of her own discarded baby blankets.

But there was no denying that the crib’s paint was badly yellowed. What color, I asked her, would she like me to paint the crib?

It was a silly question. Morrigan played constantly with her African American Doc McStuffins doll, and with all the Doc’s pink accoutrements. There was no question but that the crib must be “pink like Doc McStuffins!”

docmcstuffinspink (2)

Pink it was. Two full cans of flaming hot pink spray paint later, the entire crib was, for the first time in its long history, no longer shining white, but gleaming, bright Doc McStuffins’ pink.

I found myself humming as I added coat after coat of paint to the crib—humming a song I had not heard in decades, the words rising to my mind as if I had just listened to the music yesterday: “When I was just a wee little lad/full of health and joy/my father homeward came one night/and gave to me a toy…” The Marvelous Toy, I now recalled the song was titled, the lyrics recounting the tale of a wondrous toy that was passed from one generation to the next.

My painting completed, I snuggled all three baby dolls back into the restored crib, smiling at the little white and brown faces nestled together.

Mom would be so pleased.

If you’d like to read the story of “Amosandra”, my wonderful Black baby doll, you can find it by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published June 1, 2018.

Mourners and Other People

My mother, Betty Jean Gregory, died twelve years ago this week.

When my mother passed away, my Dad, following wishes that she had stated many times, requested contributions to their favorite charity rather than flowers. Nevertheless, as always seems to happen in these circumstances, several people chose to send flowers instead.

Dad collected the cards from the senders to give me, since both of us knew that I would be the one writing the thank-you notes (because, after all, the donors needed to be able to actually read the notes, something that wouldn’t have happened if Dad, with his execrable penmanship, had been the one writing them!) But one card puzzled him. “Who could this be?” he asked, handing me the card.

“Betty was a remarkable woman” had been written on it, with only a first name below that sentence. But I recognized the name immediately as that of a woman with whom I’d been fast friends during high school. I explained the connection to my father, who had only the haziest memory of the friend of my youth, but conceded that Mom must have made a strong impression for her to have sent flowers to a funeral decades later, when we were both in our late 50s.

Yet there was another card from someone on whom Mom had made a strong impression, and that one I’m still relieved my father never saw. This was a purported condolence card which arrived in Dad’s mailbox fairly late after Mom’s passing and which he, not recognizing the return address and not wanting any more to deal with, just handed over, unopened, to me.

Thank heaven for that. Because this was not an expression of sympathy, whatever flowery sentiment might have been written on the stylized card. Included was a note from one of Mom’s coworkers of many years prior. The note expressed this woman’s complete elation that Betty Jean Gregory was finally dead. It vilified Mom with ugly names and shamed her with spiteful observations on her character, morals, and behavior.

I read the note with mild shock but little surprise. Mom’s mental illness and addictions had sundered nearly every good relationship she’d ever had, and earned her many enemies. It was sadly true that almost everyone who had attended her funeral had done so for Dad’s sake, or for my own; Mom died friendless.

I put the spiteful letter aside to deal with later and got on with the sad business of trying to find ways to help my father take an interest in life again.

Much later, I finally began to compose a response to the poison pen note. First, I explained that I was relieved beyond measure that my Dad had not opened the card and read her hurtful words; he, as an 81-year-old widower, did not need the anguish her spitefulness would have provoked. I remarked that I supposed taking vengeance upon a dead woman by saying these things to grieving survivors made the writer feel both powerful and vindicated.

And then I admitted, underlining the words, that I could not actually refute a single charge the writer had laid at my mother’s door. I was sure that Mom had treated her badly–worse than badly. Betty, I acknowledged, had been severely mentally ill. She displayed all the unpredictability, instability and cruelty of an alcoholic and addict. She’d probably wounded the letter writer to her very soul. I said that I was truly sorry that my mother had hurt her so much.

Finally, though, I took my own, perhaps cruel, definitely petty, revenge on the heartless writer, for I pointed out to her, “I’m sure that what you experienced with my mother was difficult. But you were an adult, a grown woman. If you think what you went through was bad, try growing up as a vulnerable small child under Betty’s authority. Consider what it was like being in her charge, helpless. That’s the person you tried (and failed) to injure with your malicious little diatribe—her already-wounded daughter. You didn’t harm Betty or her memory or reputation one bit. All you did was reduce yourself to her level.”

I slid my response into an envelope and mailed it. I never heard from Mom’s former coworker again.

Now, twelve years later, I must say in complete honesty that I did not actually mourn my mother. She, in her sickness, caused me too much harm; shamed me too much, hurt me too often. I felt mostly relief at her passing, coupled with a deep, aching regret that nothing between us could now ever be put right.

But I’ve thought many times about those two funeral cards, and the intense depth of feeling that each of them displayed: one full of unresolved fury, seeking reprisal for old injuries; the other honoring and memorializing.

And I’m glad, very, very glad, that my mother had at least one true mourner at her passing.

None of us are two-dimensional beings! I hope that you will read about my alternate, appreciative perspective of my complex mother in next week’s publication of this blog.

The Secular Light Show

November 13 will be World Kindness Day, and so I am revisiting this very applicable post from 2020.

In early November 2019, a local family initiated their holiday light display—an astounding and impressive effort; simply lovely. It was, perhaps, a tad early, but what with the invidious daylight savings time having begun two weekends prior, the winter nights were certainly quite long enough to make such a light show worthwhile. The family noted the display on our local neighborhood website, posting photos and inviting people to drive by and enjoy the spectacle. Several website members commented on the exceptional light show, and I punned that it was “delightful”.

But, as always seems to happen these days, a sourpuss (i.e., jackass!) simply had to comment. “This is a very secular display,” he groused. “Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.”

Other members quickly shut him down, pointing out that not only does not everyone celebrate Christmas, but that a light-up baby Jesus in the front yard really made no more of a statement than a reindeer; that religious beliefs were best celebrated in the home and the heart, not on one’s lawn, and not just at a particular season, but throughout the year; that at the holiday season it was best to be building people up, rather than tearing them down; and, finally, that whatever else it might be, the light display was certainly fun and festive and was bringing smiles to the faces of those witnessing it and wonder to the eyes of small children.

Nothing that was said to him, however, no matter how thoughtful or theologically sound, altered the Religious Grinch’s opinion; he remained stubbornly resistant to these various peacemakers, responding emphatically with his opinion that the light spectacle was insulting to the true meaning of Christmas while intimating that he felt picked upon for having stated his opinion.

Mindful of our ever-watchful website “Lead”, who had deleted my comments before, I merely replied with a carefully-pointed remark that I thought it was a lovely gesture that this family had taken so much time, effort, and expense to make so beautiful a display just ahead of World Kindness Day on November 13th. It seemed to me, I continued, a truly kind thing to create such beauty for one’s neighbors to enjoy, and I, for one, was most appreciative of their efforts. Then I private-messaged two of those who had made the most rational and courteous responses to the Religious Grinch, and told them how much I appreciated their efforts, receiving in reply their thanks, good wishes and blessings—blessings and good wishes that they also offered publicly to the Religious Grinch, and which were (perhaps not surprisingly) not returned by him.

Although my true thoughts remained unsaid on the website (at least by me; some others dared make some of these points), there were so many things I wanted to say to Mr. Religious Grinch. I wanted to suggest that perhaps the light display had been set up by a Hindu family celebrating a belated Diwali, not Christmas, or even a NeoPagan family whose spiritual holiday, celebrated with light, is not Christmas but Yule, the winter solstice. I didn’t know, I pondered, if light displays comprised part of the celebrations of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, but those holidays, rather than Christmas, might be what the lights represented. Soyaluna, Saturnalia, Festivus—even the 6,000-year-old holiday of the Kemet Orthodoxy faith, called “The Return of the Wandering Goddess”, might be the reason behind the glorious twinkling and blinking and racing lights in the front yard of a neighborhood home.

I wanted, too, to ask Mr. Religious Grinch what he had done, or planned to do, to bring a smile to the lips of his neighbors during this holiday season; to provide them a moment’s joy. He certainly had not provided his good wishes to those on the website, so was he planning some other random act of kindness? How would he express his Christ of Christmas during the season? Would he speak a word of loving encouragement to someone sad and depressed, or haul an elderly neighbor’s trash bin through the snow to the curb on garbage collection day? Would he be dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s outstretched hand, or volunteering at a food pantry, or giving a contribution to a domestic violence shelter?

Finally, furiously, I typed my reply to Mr. Religious Grinch–the reply that (lest I become a Grinch myself!) I ever so carefully deleted before my finger, hovering anxiously over it, could press the SEND button:

“Well, sir, since this light show disturbs you so much, perhaps you should set up on your own lawn a very non-secular display, full of stables and Holy Families and angels and stars and Magi and shepherds and sheep and oxen—and YOU could be the ASS!”

If you enjoyed this, then you might also want to read, “The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past”, which you can locate by scrolling to the Archives, below on this page. It was published on December 18, 2019.

Rules to Live By

The rules I live by are so ingrained that I rarely recognize them as such.

Like most people, I live according to many small, particular (one might say petty) rules and belief systems that are now so ingrained that I rarely even recognize them as such. I’ve mentioned some of these in a previous essay, but a few examples of my personal rule/belief system are:

Beds should be made every day;

If I particularly enjoy a TV show, it won’t last beyond one season;

and

Toenails should always be painted bright, pretty colors during sandal season.

But, as I also mentioned in that earlier essay, I do not constrain anyone to adhere to my rules and beliefs, since my overarching conviction, the one that informs my entire life, is that compromise is essential to peaceful human interaction. This is made easier by the fact that I live alone; my cats rarely argue with me, and, when they do, I’m the Mom; I win. But I still consider the ability to compromise to be a vital element of human maturity. (Unfortunately, the state of current society in America indicates all too sadly that this essential principle has been pretty well abandoned.)

Anyway, being easily entertained, I recently wasted a little time considering the other rules and beliefs under which I operate, and compiling a list of them. I found this activity enlightening, especially when I began comparing my personal “Life System” to those of my friends. It was astounding not just how many factors we agreed upon, but disagreed on. (That whole compromise thing again; that is why we remain friends.)

So here is a brief list of just a few of the vital rules and beliefs by which I discovered I live. To wit:

Bedsheets should be changed every week.

Dishes don’t have to be done until there are a sinkful—and when one lives alone, that takes awhile, so dirty dishes in the sink are a given.

Toilet lids should be put down before you flush. (Have you ever read about what gets sprayed around if you don’t do this?! Eeeewwwwww.)

If you’ve never used it and you throw it out, you will need it.

If a man has to tell you how great he is in bed…he isn’t.

If it’s Amazon’s Choice, avoid it like the plague.

Cats will always walk off the linoleum to throw up on the carpet. Having thrown up on the carpet once, they will walk to a fresh spot and throw up again. They will always do this if the carpet has just been cleaned. They will definitely do this as soon as guests arrive in your home.

If you’re barefoot in the morning, you will always step in cat barf. Somehow this will happen even if you don’t own a cat.

If you are looking forward to a day of just relaxing with nothing urgent to do, 25 different chores will rear their ugly heads.

An old friend who you haven’t seen for years will show up unexpectedly on your doorstep on a Sunday afternoon, especially if you are lazing about in your PJs with uncombed hair while the house is a complete mess.

If a particular public or historical figure is your hero, you will learn something horrific about their behavior that will forever tarnish them in your eyes.

If you really liked a movie, the critics will savage it, and you will look like an idiot for saying you enjoyed it.

The family crisis will always happen while you are out of town or otherwise unavailable.

If you finally discover the perfect shade of lipstick or nail polish, the manufacturer will discontinue it the very next month.

If you belittle a dish at a potluck dinner, the person who brought it will be standing right next to you.

The elegant paper invitation you’re sending to the most important person will always be lost by the post office.

If you plan an outdoor activity involving many people, it will rain.

The pet you love best will die young.

If you hesitate to buy it, it will be gone the next time you’re in the store.

You will realize someday with total dismay that there is always going to be at least one person who will be glad to hear that you’ve died.

If you have to be up by 5:00 a.m. to make it to an early work shift, your neighbors will be having a loud party that keeps you awake until at least 2:00 a.m.

The people you love best will be the ones who hurt you most. The very fact that you love them gives them this power over your heart.

If you’ve been waiting for three months for a vital appointment with a medical specialist, you will get a jury duty notice for the day of the appointment.

The power will go out when you are in the midst of attending a critical on-line meeting.

If you make a disparaging remark about someone, they will be standing within hearing range.

There is absolutely no way to make brussels sprouts taste good.

You will get desperately sick just prior to, or during, your long-awaited vacation.

And, finally, (no, Jack!) it is NOT all small stuff!

I’m sure I’ve many other rules and hardcore beliefs under which I operate my life, but these are the most essential.

Now, what are yours?

Let me know in the Comments what rules you live by! If you missed it, you might also want to read the post “Consider Compromise” which sparked this silly little missive. You can find it in the Archives, published October 12.

The Woman in the Beige Cloak

I usually publish a ghostly little poem or story near Halloween. But this is a true tale of a paranormal event.

My mother had been dead only a few months when, my Dad described to me an odd encounter he’d experienced a few nights earlier.

He’d gone to bed at his usual time, his little cat, Nefertiti, sleeping, as she usually did, curled into the jeans that he always left just lying on the floor. He hadn’t yet quite fallen asleep (or so he thought) when he suddenly saw a beautiful, unknown woman standing beside his bed, clearly visible in the darkness.

“You’re so lonely!” she said compassionately, and leaned forward to kiss him. Then she was gone. Just gone.

Grabbing the giant Maglite that always stood ready beside the bed, Dad clicked it on, swinging the bright beam around the room as he stumbled toward the wall switch to turn on the ceiling light. There was no one in the room. Neffi still slept peacefully, curled into the bed she made of his jeans.

Shrugging, Dad turned off the lights and flashlight, and went back to bed. But it took him a very long time to fall asleep.

Was he crazy, Dad now asked me? I soothed him, explaining that he had probably been just on the edge of sleep and had a very realistic dream.

But I had reason to remember this incident when, during Dad’s final six months of life, he told me one afternoon of something that he’d been experiencing: the Woman in the Beige Cloak.

“Don’t tell your brother this,” he begged me. “He’d think I’m losing my mind.” Then he proceeded to describe a vision that had occurred multiple times since his hospitalization and transfer into nursing home care. At the edge of his vision, for just a moment, he saw a woman standing in a hooded beige cloak. “I can’t see her face,” he told me. “The hood covers it. Do you think I’m hallucinating?”

I was impressed, not because of what he had seen, but due to his description. A “beige cloak” wasn’t the sort of thing my father would usually say. He’d generally describe such an outfit as a “this long tan thing with a hood”. That was much more Dad’s style of speaking. The alteration to his usual speech pattern indicated the seriousness of what he’d been seeing.

I considered my reply carefully before telling him that, no, I absolutely didn’t think he was hallucinating or losing his mind. “I think you’re seeing your Guardian Angel,” I told him honestly, without adding that I believed he was seeing this Being because he was very close to making his journey to the other side. But I reminded him of his long ago experience with the woman who had appeared at his bedside and spoken to him and kissed him; I suggested that this was the same caring Being.

Dad’s visions continued occasionally during the final months of his life, as he mentioned to me a few times. He seemed to find them bewildering, but comforting, complaining only that he wished he could see her face (he never doubted that the person he was seeing was a woman).

Later, though, and violating dad’s stricture against doing so, in a text exchange with my brother and Dad’s closest friend, I mentioned these sightings. My brother immediately brought up the possibility of several types of illness that would cause hallucinations. I conceded that possibility, choosing not to argue. I’ve always believed in angels.

But on December 1, Dad’s friend walked into his room at the care facility and found him waking the minute she entered to exclaim in total shock, “Who was that beautiful woman hovering over me?!” There was, of course, no other person in the room. But before his friend could remark that he must have merely been dreaming, he answered himself: “It was the woman in the beige cloak! I’ve never seen her face before.”

The next morning, the care home staff found my father cold and unresponsive. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed as having suffered a heart attack. Hospitalized for three days, Dad survived the attack to return to his room at the facility. But ten days following his heart attack he was dead.

As I believed then, so I believe now: the woman in the beige cloak was his Guardian Angel. She had revealed herself to him once during his time of uttermost grief, to comfort him in his loneliness. She had been with him throughout the long six months of his dying, watching over him. And she fully revealed herself to him on that day before his final illness spiraled into the debility that would take his life.

My father died in his sleep, but he was not alone.

May we all be so fortunate.

If you’d like to read another true paranormal story for the season, scroll to the Archives, below, and choose “A Ghost Story (Only It Isn’t a Story”) from October 27, 2021.

When the Queen Died

Hatred does not cease by hatred, ever.

As an adolescent constantly searching to discover the appropriate spiritual path for my life, I came across a book titled The World’s Great Religions. One line from that book would remain with me the rest of my life: Verse 5 of the Buddhist Dhammapada. The translation was given as, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, ever. Hatred ceases by love.” (I’ve read other translations of the verse in the intervening years, but they are in essence the same.)

I had reason to recall this favorite quote when, like many people, I was shocked to read the controversial tweet by Carnegie Mellon Professor Uju Anya as news broke of Queen Elizabeth II’s imminent death. Dr. Anya wrote, “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Twitter removed the post for violating its community guidelines, but not before it had circulated worldwide.

A short time later, Professor Anya followed her disturbing tweet with a factual, painful explanation. She described the genocide endured by the Igbo people, her people, when they attempted to separate from Nigeria to form the independent nation of Biafra. She detailed British involvement, wholly for financial reasons, in support of Nigeria during the ensuing war.

The child I had once been, reading that Buddhist quote at about the same time this war occurred, knew nothing of that conflict; Vietnam dominated the headlines for my young self. It was only after reading Dr. Anya’s explanatory remarks that I researched the history of the Biafra war. I found her description of British support of Nigeria in the war to be accurate, although the struggle was far more complex than she alluded; racism and wildly differing cultures helped ignite holocaust.

Nevertheless, after reading her explanation, Dr. Anya’s original tweet made far better sense to me. Filled with anguish for what her people had endured, she fastened upon the Queen as the singular object of her revulsion; the symbol of that past evil. I still could not, did not, approve of Dr. Anya’s spiteful words (hatred does not cease by hatred, ever), but I could certainly understand why she’d said them.

Yet I still had a real problem with Dr. Anya’s tweet. Those words, written by an educator, who claimed that they were, as she later remarked, “designed to educate people”, were simply inexcusable. The explanation that followed her outburst was educational; her malicious statement was not. Not in any way.

I do not pretend to be well-educated; in fact, my formal education is very slight. In consequence, I require more, a great deal more, of those who style themselves, by reason of years of study and position, to be educators. It was in that regard, as an educator, that Dr. Anya failed miserably.

Her outburst was, the professor asserted, an “unplanned, spontaneous” reaction when she learned that Queen Elizabeth was dying. That, too, did not wash. Anyone with a few functioning neural connections (and that would certainly include Carnegie Mellon professors!) knew for a good while that Elizabeth II hadn’t long to live. The Queen was 96 years old. She was the surviving spouse of a 74-year marriage—and Widowhood Effect has been understood for decades. She’d had Covid. When appointing Liz Truss as Prime Minister, she’d had to stand using a cane. Unplanned? Spontaneous? In my opinion, Dr. Anya’s vicious tweet was long planned, and anything but spontaneous. I simply could not accept her glib explanation that she was “triggered” upon learning that Queen Elizabeth was close to passing, and to my mind, that made the professor’s failure to first post the historical reasons for her fury even a greater failure of her position as an educator. She had ample time, during the Queen’s slow decline, to disseminate the terrible history of Britain’s behavior during the war, and engage her followers in frank discussion; to state why she held Queen Elizabeth, who was merely the titular head of the nation, personally responsible.

Put simply, Dr. Anya started at the wrong end of the stick. How many people saw only her first, inflamed tweet, and, disgusted, never read further to discover the very valid reasons behind her fury? How many more people might she have educated on the history of genocide had she first spoken factually, with restraint?

Professor Anya, an intelligent, well-educated woman, was so blinded by hate that she introduced her remarks in completely the wrong order, thereby garnering some sympathy, but also a great deal of antipathy.

Hatred does that. It blinds us and makes us behave poorly. And it does not cease.

Having struggled my whole life, though, with recurring bouts of rage and impotent fury for past abuse, I empathize with, while still not condoning, Dr. Anya’s reaction to the Queen’s passing.

Nevertheless, I persist in admiring Queen Elizabeth II for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable self-discipline that she demonstrated throughout her lifetime: her careful words and calm demeanor.

Had Dr. Anya been able to put aside her antipathy, even for a brief moment, might she have learned something from the Queen’s iron-willed self-control? Perhaps…

At any rate, Professor Anya, you successfully exacted belated vengeance upon a dying elderly woman and those who loved her, and I genuinely hope (although I doubt) that it helped you to heal at last. (Hatred does not cease by hatred, ever.)

Yet I somehow doubt that a double rainbow will split the sky at the hour of your own death.

If you appreciated this essay, you might also find something to like in “Princess Diana Saved My Life”, recently re-posted on August 31, 2022. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

Consider Compromise

Our personal rules range from the silly and inconsequential to the very serious.

I don’t personally like the look of square-cut fingernails. I don’t argue with anyone’s preference to have that type of manicure; I just find them unattractive, as I do the very long, claw-like nails. I feel the same way about pearl-color nail polish, which is really surprising, seeing that I wore it constantly as a teenager. But now I think it looks like an advertisement for anemia, or perhaps zombieism. I simply don’t like it.

But pondering over my personal idiosyncrasies concerning manicures made me realize that each of us operates under these little individual rules: things we do or don’t practice ourselves; things we will or will not say; can or cannot accept; like or dislike. Our rules range from the silly and inconsequential, such as my obsession with acceptable manicure management, to the very serious, such as one’s personal spirituality.

This really came home to me recently when, while browsing an antique market, I overheard two customers and the owners, all of whom obviously attended the same church, critiquing their pastor’s latest sermon. All were incensed that, rather than use a scriptural passage as the basis for his lesson, he had chosen a poem on a spiritual theme. Listening to one of the women quote the line from the poem (several times, increasingly wrathful with each repetition), I thought to myself how eloquent and meaningful the words were. But it was obvious that their pastor had, unwittingly, broken the rules under which this small group of people operated. No matter how profound the source, they felt that a sermon in their church was to be based only on words from the Bible. Anything else was, in their view, quite unacceptable.

Eavesdropping quite unashamedly at this point, I listened in as they planned to confront their pastor on the necessity of following this rule.

I left the store feeling sorry for the benighted pastor, and wondering why they so were determined to impose their personal preferences on the entire congregation; why they could not be open to any deviation from their partialities, or to the magnificence of devotional material from another source. I also wondered what the consequences of their action would be, both immediate and long-term, and whether the rest of the congregation shared their dismay, or whether others, as I had done, considered the quote that founded the sermon to be exceptional. I imagined that quite a fracas was about to ensue from the pastor’s innocent desire to share with his parishioners words that he found evocative and eloquent.

That is the real danger of our personal rules: when we attempt to impose them upon others. Enforcing our rules doesn’t allow for individuality, or free speech, or even others’ personal preferences. For instance, that my rule is that beds must be made neatly every morning is not something I can reasonably expect others to follow; and while it might seem a minor penchant, if I were living with another person, it could cause a lot of friction.

I suppose the ultimate example of this quirk of imposing our personal rules on others is the operation of local Homeowner’s Associations. Originally begun with the noble intention of keeping areas free of, say, neighbors who reduce property values by parking four junker cars on blocks in their front yard, these groups have mutated into Neighborhood Nazis, sparking news stories concerning the persecution of harmless veterans who plunk a miniature American flag into a flowerpot, or couples who innocently feed the ducks.

Compromise is an essential function of interacting with other human beings. Sadly, we each seem to forget this on an individual basis. Is it any wonder, then, that nations find it impossible to manage this on a worldwide scale?

I’m always going to wonder how the “improper basis for a sermon” discussion fell out. Did the pastor accept the argument of his small group of parishioners, or was he dismayed, or even incensed, at their position? Was he able to convert them to compromising, however unwillingly, with his viewpoint? Did he listen carefully to their concerns, but in the end maintain his own position? Did the debate result in a fracturing of the congregation, or even the pastor’s departure?

I’ll never know. But for my own part, although, I will always maintain my preferences, I will never require that others adhere to my penchant for fingernails that are no longer than a quarter-inch long in gently rounded ovals; nails that, if polished, are painted only in shades ranging from pale to deep pinks and rich reds, while the wearer’s corresponding toenails are brightly painted in rosy tones or even sparkling shades.

Those are, though, just my personal preferences. In the end, just as with my choices regarding spirituality, I recognize that I must never unnecessarily impose my will and my decisions on another entity.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also enjoy, “Roses of the Soul”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below; it was published December 16, 2017.

When We Weren’t White

Last year (and we are blaming Mercury Retrograde for the problem) this post failed to publish in time for the Columbus/Indigenous People’s holiday.  So this year it is being reprinted timely.

I am, as confirmed by DNA testing, half-Italian. My grandparents were each born in America, but their own families, including some older siblings, were born in Italy: Lucca, in Tuscany, and Vasto, not far from Rome.

One of my great-grandfathers actually arrived on the shores of America pre-Ellis Island, coming through Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Mansuetto Gregori arrived with his wife and children sometime during the 1840s or 1850s, long before Castle Garden stopped processing immigrants in 1890. Family legend, related to me by my grandmother decades ago, held that, having arrived in New York and before moving to what would eventually be Sioux City, Iowa, Mansuetto quickly changed the spelling of the family name to Gregory, hoping to be taken as “Black Irish” (the name once given to those dark-haired, olive-skinned Celts who descended from survivors of the 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada). The Irish, as Mansuetto quickly determined, had assimilated and were (mostly) accepted in America, as Italians were not. I’ve never quite understood why Mansuetto would have believed that his accent, as he learned English, would fail to identify him as Italian rather than Irish, but I suppose that logic would have been his least consideration at the time.

We Italians weren’t White, you see. We would not be considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist quotas on Italian immigration would finally be overturned.

So although many people–people of color, indigenous people, and those of Asian, Pacific Islander or Jewish descent–might easily glance at me and think, “privileged White person”—and although I, personally, suffered almost nothing of the anti-Italian sentiment which was once rife in the United States–well, no, not quite. My experience falls nowhere near the same classification as that of most Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the pervasive racism experienced daily by most Black people in the United States. But it was not all smooth sailing, either, especially for my paternal Grandmother and Grandfather, and not even for my own father. As I have reported in prior blog posts, my grandparents endured terrible incidents of bigotry throughout their lives. For my Grandmother, especially, those incidents left emotional scars; I will never forget my feelings of disbelief, shock, and grief when she first related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in early childhood at the hands of her teacher, an Irish-American Roman Catholic nun. (See “And Speaking of Prejudice”, from January 18, 2018.)

For, yes, as Italians, we were also Roman Catholic. Few people today realize or recall just how detrimental to his campaign was the Roman Catholicism practiced by John F. Kennedy. Yet it was not long after his assassination that I sat in my fifth grade classroom, listening fearfully, as my teacher explained to the class that, should the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion ever be revoked, “THEY” would come for us, just as they had murdered our President.  Fortunately for my peace of mind, there were many Catholic children in the neighborhood where I first grew up, since Holy Name church and school were literally around the block.  But the one little girl who was just my age (all the others were older or younger) wasn’t permitted to play with me, the “Car-tholic” girl. Bigotry comes in many forms.

Still, most of these fears and slights touched my life only peripherally, fading away as I grew to adulthood. Perhaps that is why I reacted viscerally to the reframing of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. PLEASE DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND! I genuinely believe this is a long-overdue reparation for and acknowledgement of the horrific damage suffered by the native peoples following the arrival of Europeans on the American shores. Nevertheless, I also have a heartfelt personal investment in Columbus Day, as an Italian American aware of the sad truth of the origins of the holiday: that the celebration (originally intended as a one-time event) was declared by the short-lived President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the horrifying New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian immigrants. The murders brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war; the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States until President Harrison’s paltry act of reparation.

So while I rejoice at this new national consciousness; at the acknowledgement of wrong doing, and at the justice and truth brought to the reframing of the day, for me, for me personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be recognized as “Lynched Italian Americans Day”.  You see, my racially-profiled and murdered ancestors are to me quite as important as yours are to you. And absolutely none of them, yours or mine, deserved to be treated as less than human because of the circumstances of their birth and heritage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “You Dirty Wop”, which you can find in the Archives, below, from February 1, 2018.

The Oxygen Mask

My Dad never fully accepted the inevitability of death.

During a long ago mental health counseling session, I was advised by my therapist to work on being less of a caretaker personality. I should learn to acknowledge and fulfill my own needs, she suggested; to say no without excuses or guilt; “put the oxygen mask on your own face first”.

Years later, I’ve come some slight distance toward achieving those goals. I can occasionally acknowledge personal needs, and even work on fulfilling them. Rarely, though, am I able to say no without providing a reason, and never without experiencing guilt. And I suspect that, were I to be found in that situation, I’d be trying to cram the oxygen mask on the face of the nearest small child, rather than my own.

I suppose that’s why, during the distressing six months of my father’s decline and death, I experienced such disbelief at the overwhelming work required of a caretaker, and such shocked surprise at the irritation and resentment I found within myself.

This isn’t to say that I was alone in this situation. Fortunately, there were a number of us working together to take care of paying bills, confronting apathetic nursing home staff and non-communicative doctors, seeing to the maintenance of Dad’s home, and providing care for his lonely little cat. The visits, the medical appointments, the holiday meals, the daily phone calls, his laundry, locating medical equipment rentals, picking up and monitoring medication, even trimming his toenails—all those chores were divided between a small phalanx of helpers. In that respect, we were very fortunate. As I have said many times now, I honestly don’t know how people do this, alone and without assistance.

But the simple truth remains that caring for a very elderly parent—and Dad was 92 when he died—means that one is aging oneself. These chores, both mental and physical, are made more difficult by years: at 70, one simply hasn’t the mental flexibility of prior decades, or the physical stamina.

Complicating our job was the fact that Dad, never having accepted the inevitability of his own mortality, was in a state of astonished disbelief, furious about his increasing frailty. Dad had been hospitalized only once in his adult life, when he’d been put in traction to relieve back pain. Despite having never exercised and eating mostly junk, he’d remained amazingly healthy until he was past 89. Finally, excruciating pain in his knee and back began to limit his mobility, and years of smoking caught up with his lungs.

But unlike those of us who’ve experienced serious illness, Dad simply hadn’t reconciled with the fact that he would, someday, die, or that he would begin to fail physically. He raged at that reality, and, infuriated, began to morph into the worst version of himself: demanding, resentful, whining, snappish, angry. All of his caretakers, both employed and family, bore the brunt of his choleric temper while trying to remain calm and helpful. I’ll always recall the afternoon when one of the aides came to tidy his room at the care facility: I’d jumped up to help her as Dad, increasingly irritated, could not make her understand exactly how he wanted a certain blanket placed on the bed. He snarled at me, too, and the aide grinned and whispered, “Well, I thought it was just me, but I can see you’re in for it, too!”

As I left from my visit that day, I finally acknowledged to myself that I, too, was angry–really angry; bitter and resentful. At that point, we had all had tried for half a year to make Dad more comfortable in his unhappy situation, without ever receiving thanks from him, or even acknowledgement of our sacrifices and effort.

And so, finally, I put the oxygen mask on my own face. Knowing that I communicate best in writing, I handed my father a letter saying all of this, and more. I insisted that he examine his inappropriate behavior, and mend it. No matter what he was going through, I said, he had the obligation to treat staff, family, and friends with courtesy, respect and, above all, appreciation.

Dad was absolutely flabbergasted at my letter–flabbergasted, flummoxed, totally confounded. For my part, I found his reaction bewildering until it finally it dawned on me that never once in my adult life had I truly censured my father, no matter how bad his behavior. Oh, I’d sometimes humorously chided him for racist or misogynistic speech. I’d quietly suggested that everyone, even nurses just doing their jobs, deserved to be thanked. I’d gently advised him that friends, growing tired of hearing only complaints, might stop visiting. I’d begged him to say please rather than issue commands. But I’d never blatantly censured his conduct or resolutely demanded better behavior.

Sadly, I can’t say that my letter made a great deal of difference in Dad’s conduct during his final weeks. But putting that oxygen mask on my own face allowed me to at last take a long, deep, clear breath, straighten my burdened shoulders, and lift my head high in acknowledgement of my own perfectly reasonable requests and legitimate needs.

And that felt good.

If you appreciated (I won’t say enjoyed) this post, you might also like “Aging Prayer”, from January 26, 2022. You can locate it in the Archives list, below.