The Night of the Dragons

It had been a quiet day…

It was 10:00 p.m. on a surprisingly cool mid-July evening, and I was not all right.

The day had been a quiet Sunday, like many another. I’d done housework and run errands, and enjoyed take-out and a video with a friend

My errands had included a trip to the local ATM. Following my usual route, I’d driven up 9th Street in the nearby small town of Beech Grove, passing tiny Don Challis park as I did so. For the umpteenth time, I wondered to myself who Don Challis had been and why the park was named for him, before noting the excellent playground equipment. I should take my little granddaughter there to play, I told myself, as soon as she was well again; she’d been sick with Covid, but was recovering.

But the peace of the waning day had been shattered when my phone began to sound with one text after another: There’s been a mass shooting at Greenwood Mall on County Line Road!

I stared at my phone screen in shocked disbelief. Greenwood, the mall where, as adolescents, I and my friends had spent half our weekends, giggling and racing happily from store to store before refueling ourselves with burgers and cokes at the lunch counter of a dimestore. Greenwood, where my once-teenage daughter had attended driving school before obtaining her license. Greenwood, a mass shooting? It seemed impossible. Specifics of the tragedy were scarce, though, so I resolved not to engage with the news until details were available.

Then my daughter called. After days of recovery, little Morrigan’s fever had risen again. “This isn’t good! Call her pediatrician,” I advised. A few minutes later, my daughter called once more. They were heading to the ER.

I texted some friends and relatives about the situation, telling them that I was headed to the emergency room, and asking them to pray. One, blessedly wise, thought I was too upset to drive there on my own. She hurried to give me a ride to the hospital…the hospital that was on County Line Road. County Line, where Greenwood Mall was also located. We rode in painful silence past a surreal vision of endless strips of bright yellow tape; of police cars, blue and red lights flashing, parked every which way in the otherwise-empty mall lot.

I joined my family in the ER waiting room, and, heedless of her Covid infection, enfolded my three-year-old granddaughter within the circle of my arms. She was burning with fever, yet smiling; demanding to watch cartoons on my Kindle, which, anticipating a long wait at the hospital, I’d grabbed as I left the house. Finally, a nurse came to take the two of them back to the treatment rooms, and I was left alone in the nearly-empty waiting room.

Sitting near the reception desk, I overheard snatches of conversation about the shooting. I don’t need this!, I thought. Moving away, I tried to concentrate on the eBook I’d begun a day earlier. But after reading the same sentence over and over without comprehension, I realized that my usual anodyne, books, wasn’t working. Perhaps if I re-read something familiar… And so I turned to a series of light-hearted, fantasy mystery books which I knew to be rich with compassion and benevolence: Kim Watt’s Beaufort Scales stories. Amusing books of tea-drinking, cake-eating dragons and their human cohorts, rife with pithy, gentle observations on human nature. I settled in with those familiar dragons for what I was certain would be a long wait.

Then I received another text, this time from my daughter as she, too, waited elsewhere in the hospital. There had been a second mass shooting…at Don Challis park in Beech Grove. Don Challis park, which I had just passed earlier that day. The park where I’d admired the playground, vowing to take Morrigan there.

Tears blurred my vision, scalding my cheeks, but I stoically tried to concentrate on my book. One sentence almost shouted out at me from the page: “That was a larger and more difficult thing than people realized, Mortimer thought. Just to be alright.”

I wasn’t all right, I realized. Nothing was all right.

Hours later, my daughter and granddaughter walked out of the treatment rooms, paperwork and prescriptions in hand. Morrigan’s illness was not resurgent Covid, but a severe bladder infection, a treatable ailment caused by dehydration from the fevers of Covid-19.

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At nearly 1:00 in the morning, I sat with the little one in the car as my daughter filled her child’s prescriptions at an all-night pharmacy. Chattering away at me from her car seat, less upset than excited by all that had happened and by being up so late, little Morrigan literally fell asleep mid-sentence, holding my hand. I smiled and gently disengaged my fingers to snap a photo of her exhausted small self.

It was 1:00 in the morning, and tragedy lurked at every corner of my world, but I was all right.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “The Miracle on Route 16”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below. It published on November 4, 2017.

My thanks to Kim Watt for allowing me to quote her delightful dragon, Mortimer.

We Need a Gender-Free Pronoun, Part 2

Relearning is challenging for the aging brain!

It is sadly true that, as one ages, the brain become less adaptable. New languages are harder to acquire, for example, but that doesn’t even begin to encompass the difficulties inherent in the aging brain. For instance, years ago I knew how to tie a bow—any bow; ribbons, shoelaces—so that it was always perfectly straight and equal. I could do this without thinking. Now I must stop before tying a bow to intentionally review the technique that prevents it from coming out lopsided and uneven.

So it’s often with trepidation that I approach all the new nuances of language and interaction. I find pronouns (and their accompanying verbs—how does one connect the pronouns formerly of multiple reference, they and them, with their attached verbs? Does one use “is”, for instance? Or “are”? But I digress….) The real problem is, of course, that for upwards of 67 years, I’d used only she/he, him/her. Relearning the use of a pronoun of multiple reference to indicate an individual is essentially to learn a new language, and therefore (as an aging person who can’t always remember what I ate for breakfast today), challenging.

Never was this made plainer to me than when I, in 2021, decided to revisit a church that I’d briefly attended years before.

Unfortunately, the non-denominational churches which I preferred were no longer available to me; the area where one was located had deteriorated badly, and I felt uncomfortable going there alone, while another had closed completely. Of the two Unitarian Universalist churches that I might have chosen, one was distant and almost devoid of parking, while I found the other to be sadly unwelcoming to newcomers.

So I decided to revisit a Christian denomination church I’d briefly attended, recalling it as a place of teaching, rather than preaching, an ecumenical lesson.

The church seemed much as I’d remembered, and I found a lot to appreciate in the “kindness and courtesy” message. The congregation was invited to a reception after the service, and I decided to attend. A welcoming committee noted new faces, and I was handed off to a small group of people of varying ages who fetched me a cup of coffee and kindly invited me to sit with them.

I noted one member of the group whose gender seemed indeterminate. Clothing, hair, face—nothing gave one a clue, and I, confused by a series of quickfire introductions (never my strength, anyway, putting names to faces and remembering them), couldn’t recall having been told the individual’s name. Conversation in the little group flowed easily, though, so I avoided putting my foot in my mouth by the simple expedient of not addressing the individual directly.

But when I went to pour myself another cup of coffee, one of the group members accompanied me and said softly, “I just wanted to mention that we’re all very careful of pronouns for Chell.”

I’d just taken a sip from my fresh cup, but somehow managed not to spit coffee all over myself and my companion. “Chell”, you see, was the slang that all my older Italian relatives used for “penis”. Coughing, I windmilled one hand for my companion to continue while choking out the words, “That’s an unusual name.”

“Their deadname is Chelsea,” he explained. “But here’s the thing: Chell can’t stand to be misgendered. If you use the wrong pronoun, they’ll cut you out entirely—refuse to speak to you or even acknowledge that you exist.”

“I see,” I said slowly. “Well, thank you for warning me. I would not want to upset, uh, Chell.” (Nor chuchee nor ookee, either—and, no, I don’t know how the words are spelled; I just know how to pronounce my family’s Italian slang and the various body parts to which the words refer!)

I returned to the group, but kept to myself the thoughts churning madly in my brain, which had nothing to do with this individual’s unfortunate choice of name. My deliberations went more along the line of, “Well, Chell is obviously too young to comprehend how challenging individuals of my age find it to adapt to this mangling of English grammar as was once beaten into us by ruler-wielding, knuckle-slamming nuns. And, honestly, if Chell wants to cut me dead and loftily ignore me, rather than gently correct any misuse of a personal pronoun, well, I’ve been dumped by better and more important people over the course of a long lifetime. And what was that in today’s message about making the choice to be kind?!”

Not needing such dissonance in my life, I smiled at but didn’t interact with that group again in subsequent after-service coffee hours, and, finding I wasn’t really as happy with the church as I’d hoped, attended only a few more services before quitting entirely.

But, as I’ve said before in these essays: We really need a gender-free pronoun upon which everyone can agree; one which has never been associated with either female, male, or multiple reference.

And, for the love of heaven, if your name is Chell, don’t ever associate with old Italian immigrants!

You might also enjoy “We Need a Gender-Free Pronoun” from June 23, 2021. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

The Hatred

I originally wrote this post with the intention of publishing it prior to the anniversary of the January 6 Insurrection. But I found I couldn’t bear to start the year on so sad and awful a note.

A few years back, pre-Pandemic (since that is how we all now date everything in our lives) an acquaintance informed me that we would not fall out over my blog post, “The Benefit of the Doubt”, written concerning his experience with the so-called “Love” booth at an Indy Pride event. As I explained in that earlier essay, it wasn’t entirely clear, from his description, what this “Love” booth was actually all about. I assumed that it promulgated love and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Or perhaps, I thought a bit wildly, the people manning the booth were there just to give hugs, like the great church-wide hugging plague of the 1980s. Still another possibility was that the stall provided information on ways the community might demonstrate love and acceptance to everyone of every race, creed and gender. My friend’s description of the booth left its purpose unclear, but he’d been very upset by the individuals operating the Love booth.

It seemed that, as he’d listened throughout the day to many very liberal, far-left comments by the people manning the stall (which was positioned right next to his own booth), he’d found himself wondering, was still wondering: Had he strolled over to that stall, wearing his MAGA hat, and explained to them his adamant view that then-President Trump was “our greatest President ever”, what would their reaction have been? Would the people manning the Love booth have considered him loveable, or even likeable? Or would they have reacted with anger? He was extremely doubtful, he said, that love would have been their reaction.

My blog post about that situation explored the idea that my friend assumed their response, rather than put his question to the test. He didn’t engage with the people manning the Love booth, providing them a chance to refute his position without rejecting him personally, or to talk through their differences.

So a few weeks after that event, when my blog post on the subject was published, my friend magnanimously explained to me that we would not fall out over my remarks, because: “You weren’t there. You didn’t hear it—the hatred”.

Unfortunately, once again, he made an unwarranted assumption. Because I was hearing it—hearing and reading and seeing the hatred every day. At the time, restrictions to written news commentary had not been established. Every news story could be commented upon; one rarely even needed to register on most news sites to leave a comment. Those comment pages were filled with sadistic, trolling statements; rife with cruelty that the overwhelmed moderators could not screen out. My highly-political and extremely conservative father constantly forwarded e-mails to me that, remarking viciously upon the viewpoints I held, made me cry. And while I personally eschewed social media, friends told me of the brutal statements that were posted to their pages. I’d even once sat, helpless and cringing, while two acquaintances nearly came to blows over their opposing viewpoints.

Hatred, I discovered, was not confined to any one group or any single position. People from both sides and corners of the fence slung insults and violent verbiage at one another. And all of it was escalating.

Trying to establish a middle-of-the-road position for myself, I read the news from multiple sources, both left and right, and was on each part equally horrified. What had happened to compromise, to the art of listening? How had our constitutional right to free speech fallen so far?

Then we held a free, fair and, yes, honest election, and Trump lost the popular vote for the second time, this time losing the electoral vote, as well. He had paved the way for doubt on the part of his followers by claiming the election to be rigged even before it happened. Having genuinely lost, he then totally refused to accept his failure. He did not even pretend to be anything other than that entity so despised throughout my childhood: a sore loser.

And so January 6th happened. Sitting paralyzed with horror, clutching my toddler grandchild within the protective circle of my arms, I sat watching while tears rained down my face. I watched it: the hatred, and the horrific violence fueled by hatred.

Months later, still engaged in attempting to maintain a fair and balanced vision of all that was happening in my country, I sat watching once more as Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham viciously mocked the PTSD suffered by those who had gallantly struggled to defend our Capitol on that ghastly day. Observing her derisive facial expressions, listening to her contemptuous remarks, I experienced it yet one more time: the hatred.

“You weren’t there. You didn’t hear it—the hatred.”

No, my friend, I did not need to be there on that long ago Indy Pride day to hear, to experience, the hatred. I have seen it a hundred, a thousand times, then and since: In banned books. In violent attacks on minority individuals and elected officials and their families. In defamatory comments toward those who hold differing viewpoints. In incitement to violence. In bigotry and racism from and toward people of every color, creed and gender.

I have seen it everywhere, on every face; heard it in every voice: the hatred.

And I despair.

You may read the original essay, “The Benefit of the Doubt”, by scrolling to the archived blog posts, below. It was published on July 31, 2019

A Missionary Trip to…the Hell You Say!

They went WHERE on their missionary trip?

Several years ago when I was in a long term relationship (that really should have been a quit-by-the-third-date association—I have since realized that I have incredibly bad taste in men, and pretty much sworn off them)…anyway… I was introduced to one of the Sig O’s good friends. We were all together for a local but tediously long journey to Someplace (i.e., immured in the car with no escape for a couple of hours) when the conversation rolled around to the recent homecoming of the friend’s parents, who had just returned from a Christian missionary trip.

Having been tossed the conversational ball, I, who disapprove of missionary trips as a matter of principle—more about that in a moment—asked brightly, “Oh? Where did they go on their mission?”

“To Ireland,” the friend replied.

I was totally bewildered. “Uh, isn’t Ireland a basically Christian country?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he replied quickly, shaking his head. “It isn’t Christian. It’s Catholic.”

After I’d replaced my jaw, I drew a breath preparatory to saying something along the line that this distinction would have come as very unwelcome news to my late, very devout, Italian Roman Catholic grandparents. Had anyone told PopPop or Grandma that they weren’t Christian, well, that person would have been in for at least a tongue lashing (probably in the very rudest Italian terms, some of which I can, quite proudly, quote), or possibly some very well-known and equally rude Italian hand gestures, or even a straightforward wallop right on the nose. I considered adding the information that, despite having left the church as a teenager, I myself had been raised Roman Catholic and certainly considered myself to be a Christian during those years.

However, my incipient protests were shut down by peremptory hand gestures and warning glares from the Sig O, who did not want to hear anything from the person in the cheap seats (i.e., me). Cautious regarding the Sig O’s easily-triggered temper, I swallowed my protests and subsided into invisibility in my corner of the car, not venturing to engage in the conversation any further. But thereafter I refused to ever spend (waste) time again with Christian Missionary friend. (I should have also refused to ever waste time again with the Sig O, but I’m a slow learner.)

Aside from the whole Catholic-not-Christian controversy, which I don’t to this day understand, I disapprove, as I mentioned, of missionary trips on principle—the principle being that I do not believe there is any one “true” religion, and that whatever people chose to believe (or not) is pretty much fine with me, so long as it doesn’t involve human or animal sacrifice. I’m sort of down on misogyny, burkas, and the summoning of demons, also (that whole “inviting evil in” thing has always pretty much bewildered me). But I’m pretty firmly convinced that most of the world’s major religions have, in their long histories, done one helluva lot more harm than good, what with pogroms and witch burnings, Bloody Mary and the Inquisition, torture and shunning and pious hypocrisy and bloodstained religious wars, and just general “man’s inhumanity to man”—not to even mention man’s inhumanity to all womankind.

My view of most religions is so completely cynical that I am neither shocked nor astonished by the constant sordid revelations of sexual crimes and egregious physical abuse committed by clergy of every faith, especially those that prate of chastity as a preferential state of being. Such hypocrisy is woven into the very patriarchal warp and misogynistic woof of those religions. I wasn’t even slightly surprised when abortion clinic workers recently revealed that they often provided abortions to the very right-to-life protestors manning their stations outside the clinic; women who, having had an abortion, informed the clinic workers that they were doomed to hell and then immediately returned to the picket line in a flagrant display of sanctimonious deceit.

Nope, as I view the whole situation from my admittedly-lofty-and-judgmental perch of contempt, if a person of any faith feels compelled to perform missionary work, then they might just want to consider shucking the agenda to convert others and first try leading by example: demonstrating by a life well and kindly lived that their belief system has genuine merit. They might also want to think about spending time actually working to make the world a better place by, oh, say, feeding the hungry, succoring the poor and homeless, eschewing racism, treating others as they wish to be treated, caring for the environment and the animals which share this planet with us, and simply being (as suggested in Ephesians 4:32) kind to one another–without requiring adherence to a particular set of beliefs as a prerequisite. Any of these actions might better serve both the Divine and humanity than hair-splitting quibbles about who is or is not Christian.

And, of course, initiating any or all of these behaviors in their own neglected backyard might prove to be a far wiser choice than hooting off on a “missionary” vacation to Ireland!

My cockeyed religious viewpoint can also be explored in “Tough Love for the Prodigal Son”, which was published March 30, 2018. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

Hiding in Downton Abbey

Okay. This was pretty intriguing stuff.

When the long-running British series Downton Abbey initially began, I read about it and shrugged, uninterested. Midway into the first season, though, a coworker, Dani, who was enjoying the show, urged me to begin watching it. I remained unconvinced. “I’ve seen Upstairs, Downstairs,” I told her. “Life can hold no more.”

The show was well into its third season one winter, though, when a weekend snowstorm headed for Indianapolis. Not a blizzard, shades of ’78; just a plain old Indy snowstorm. High winds, falling temperatures, lots of drifting snow. The storm was supposed to begin late on Friday night. If the power stayed on (always questionable when high winds combined with snow), I’d need something to occupy my time over a snowbound weekend. I already had yarn and hooks for a crochet project, and plenty of favorite books to re-read. But I’d watched every DVD I owned multiple times to the point of utter boredom, while I had no cable package and basically hated every sitcom and drama then running on network TV. What to do?

So when I headed out for snowstorm supplies to stock my pantry, I chose to make a longer trip down to the highway. There was a used video store tucked in the corner of that strip mall. I could load up on groceries before shopping for a couple of shows.

The DVD store proved a bust, however. I either already owned or wasn’t interested in any of the videos they had. Except…the first season of Downton Abbey. Oh, well, I thought as I laid my money down. Dani would be happy. I’d finally caved.

The wind was already rising that night as I picked up my crocheting and fed the first disk into the player. Snowflakes danced in the darkened windows as the theme music played. The telegraph operator spoke the first line of the series:“Oh my God!” Okay, this was pretty intriguing stuff, I admitted a short while later, realizing that I’d become so interested in the drama that I’d botched two rows of the shell stitch that I could usually crochet in my sleep.

And then they carried the lifeless Turk down the gallery in the dead of night.

I finally stumbled to bed about two a.m., having watched the entire first season. When I at last arose the next day, I didn’t even spare a glance for the snow-blanketed landscape. I just made a cup of coffee and fed the first DVD back into the player to rewatch the whole thing.

The real blessing of my fascination with the series came in 2014, when my sister-in-law’s mother passed away. Paula, the younger sister, had cared for their mother for years, living there in the house with Ellen, and found it troubling to return to their empty home following Ellen’s death. So we three staged a weekend sleepover to reintroduce Paula to the premises, staying up the better part of the first evening watching Downton Abbey, using the familiar scenes and characters to grease the skids of Paula’s difficult transition into a home without their Mom.

The world turned and turned, and we tumbled into 2018; I received a diagnosis of uterine cancer. Numb with shock after the phone call from my gynecologist, I reached out to Paula, and she hurried to stay with me that night. Once again we pulled out the first season. Watching the well-known plot, hearing the memorable lines, I found myself encased in a comforting familiarity, like pulling a pillowy soft blanket over the gaping wound of my fear and shock. I continued to watch select episodes of the series throughout my tests and surgery and recovery that winter—especially the one in which Mrs. Hughes feared she had breast cancer. It was all ineffably comforting.

Over and over again, watching the special features at the end of the series and movie videos, I’ve listened as the cast, the directors and producers and crew members, remark that it has been a privilege and a pleasure, if not a wonder, to be part of something which has touched the lives of so many people everywhere in the world—a show so beloved, so appreciated, that it has woven itself into the threads of our culture. Each time I’ve thought to myself, “If they only knew….”

Then my friend of 32 years, living 900 miles away in another state, died…and no one told me. I learned of her death through a dream, à la Joseph and the Pharaoh, and the aegis of a search engine. Renée had already been buried when I discovered the truth; I did not even have the comfort of a memorial service to say my goodbyes to her.

And so, knowing that a cherished character of my much-beloved series was to die in the second movie, which I had not yet seen, I hurried out to purchase the video. For I needed a funeral. I needed to weep for someone lost. I needed to hear the trite truth that life goes on, and that time heals.

I needed these people who did not really exist in order to mourn the unbearable loss of one who had.

Yet one more time I pulled the enfolding blanket of the fictional world of Downton Abbey across my cringing soul.

And it worked.

May the new year bring better times for all of us, and countless blessings upon you and yours!

A Yule Card for All of You

For those of you who don’t receive my personally-created Yuletide card…

Sending you love, light, and a wish for your greatest happiness, at this season, sacred to so many spiritual paths, and for all time.

Please tell me in the Comments about any acts of kindness bequeathed to you this year.

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If you have received an act of kindness from someone this year, please tell me about it in the Comments section.

Last Words

My father passed away December 12, 2021. I laugh now, recalling his final words to me.

I don’t recall my mother’s specific last words to me before she slipped into a coma while she lay dying over a long and arduous two weeks. But I do remember the last word I heard her speak clearly, and it still sends chills down my spine when I think of it.

She said, “Lying.”

At the time my mother spoke that word, I was standing with two relatives at the other end of the long, narrow hospital room. We huddled by the window, speaking together in whispers, while the TV above Mom’s hospital bed played some banal afternoon talk show and a nurse checked her vitals. Our relatives were asking me why my older brother was not there at the hospital with my father and me, and I explained, haltingly, reluctantly, about the family problems—Mom’s addictions and sometimes violent behavior–that had resulted in my brother removing himself from all contact with our parents for nearly 20 years.

Our relatives were shocked by the details I imparted, although in no way disbelieving; they were aware of Mom’s alcoholism and had always suspected her mental illness. Saddened, they spoke of the interventions they’d have made to our troubled childhoods had they known at that time the full extent of our problems. All of this was, as I said, spoken in whispers far across the room from Mom’s hospital bed, impossible for her, even had she been awake, or the nurse caring for her to hear.

But it was just as I finished my account of Mom’s problems that she spoke up for the first time in days, clearly and forcefully uttering a single word: “Lying!”

She could not possibly have heard me, any of us, whispering so far away or over the sound of the TV. And yet she had somehow done so, and protested, proclaiming me to be a liar.

Later, a cousin who worked decades as a nurse told me that she believed many of the dying are not actually tied to their own bodies as they begin to transition to the next life, especially when in a coma; their spirits go wandering. It was likely, she explained, that Mom stood right there beside us, listening to our conversation, and incensed at its content. Her explanation seemed reasonable. How predictable, then, Mom’s response, for she never did develop the self-honesty necessary to work with her addictions or control her rage.

I had cause to think of this event a lot when my father lay dying 12 years later. Dad had slipped from hospital to care home over a tortuous six months, never quite believing that he would not go home again. Finally, as his condition deteriorated even further, we prepared to initiate hospice.

I spent much of that last weekend at his bedside in the care home. He wasn’t truly in pain, although uncomfortable. He claimed not be frightened of death, but, as he explained to his pastor, “It’s just that I’ve never done it before.”

And he worried. He worried for the welfare of his little cat, although all of us assured him that Lucy would never be homeless, never sent to a shelter. We would care for her ourselves or find her the perfect family. (We did.) He worried over my younger brother, who had endured a terribly rough patch in his life, although he was now happy and stable. He even worried that the weather reported heavy rainfall coming in, and sent us scurrying from his room to reach home before the storm broke. And he worried because I was driving to and from the care home in a car with nearly-bald tires, and urged me to get them replaced immediately.

Finally, in those last few days, after asking me time and time again to apply lidocaine patches to his aching feet, he would beg me to stroke his hair, or to hold his hand. At one point he asked for both, and I, laughing and crying, trying to stretch across his bed both ways, exclaimed, “Dad, I’m fat, but I’m not that wide!”

But on the final afternoon that I spent at his bedside, Dad mostly slept. I sat at his laptop, going over his e-mail—the e-mail that he enjoyed so much and which had provided so much of his entertainment in the final years of his life—replying to contacts with updates on his condition. And as I sat there, working quietly, he suddenly woke and demanded loudly, “Rebecca! Did you get those tires?!”

Those were my father’s last words to me. The next night, after chatting amiably with a nurse, he slipped quietly into the final sleep of death.

Months later, driving down a nearby road, I glanced over at a newly-opened tire outfitters business. And I smiled to myself and nodded.

“Yes, Daddy,” I told his lingering spirit. “Yes, I did.”

If it seems I have been publicly mourning my father in my blog posts this year, well, yes, I have. But it’s my hope that these words touch others who may be enduring grief. And if you found something helpful in this post, you might also enjoy, “Emails to Dad”, published May 4, 2022.

Privilege, In All Its Glory

Shaming people for an accident of birth is divisive and negative

Despite the fact that I recognize and acknowledge having been the unwitting lifelong possessor of various forms of White privilege, as a person of Italian-American heritage, I have walked just a few–a very few, tiny, mincing, tiptoeing steps–on the other side of the street, too. The people of my paternal family were not considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist immigration quotas on Italians were overturned. Living in the city of Indianapolis, I never drive past the President Benjamin Harrison home on Delaware Street without recalling that the short-lived President introduced the original Columbus Day celebration as a one-time national holiday in 1892, following the New Orleans lynching of 11 innocent Italian immigrants–an act which brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war, as the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States. (And since Taking Umbrage is now a national pastime, let me hasten to assure all readers that I fully celebrate the reinvention of Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day! That does not, however, alter the sad origins of the holiday.) I remember with both laughter and shock the stories told to me about the racism endured by my Italian grandmother and grandfather; the filthy name calling to which my father was subjected while growing up. I know that some Italians in the United States were interned during WW II.

Put simply, what all of this has taught me is: We humans have to begin being just human. People of all creeds, colors and genders cannot continue this acrimonious habit of accusation and resentment for one another’s entitlements, actual or supposed. Rather, it is long past time that we all begin to work together to bequeath to one another, to anyone deprived, our various blessings.

Shaming people for an accident of birth is divisive and negative. It results in nothing but resentment and increased contentiousness. Everyone has some form of unearned, arbitrary advantage: Christian privilege. Ability privilege. Male privilege. Financial privilege. Educational privilege. Heterosexual privilege.

It is an unearned privilege to be born tall or with excellent vision or superb hearing. Being born part of a two-parent, two-earner family is decidedly a privilege. A genetic inclination conferring talent or mental acuity or physical ability is an unearned privilege. The list is endless.

And while, yes, it is fair and just to require that others acknowledge their benefits from unearned privilege, expecting them to feel guilt for this is worse than damaging; it is unproductive. It merely provokes indignation. When we encounter bitterness from another person over our supposedly having had it easy due to some form of privilege, our private response is always resentment and indignation. We recall our personal struggles and we feel belittled. Rare is the individual who will, in such circumstances, stop, take a deep breath and admit: “I didn’t have it easy, no—but your experience was so much harder!”

Attempting to base global or societal changes on such negativity is always destined to fail, simply because every person, everyone, everywhere, wants to feel validated. They do not want to have their efforts and challenges, their personal story, minimized. The sad and tired script of, “‘I have experienced pain and difficulty.’ ‘Well, mine was worse!’” only perpetuates a sequence of bitter, angry responses. From there the progression through negativity to misunderstanding to viciousness never stops.

The cycle becomes a cyclone when natural reactions of shock and sorrow are labeled “fragility”. For anyone with a developed sense of empathy, it’s painful to face the awfulness that another person has endured, especially when recognizing that we ourselves may have played a role, even inadvertently, in their dreadful reality. But to evince sadness, even anguish, in that circumstance, is not to be fragile, but to display enormous strength. Compassion and empathy always require great strength.

But we can, each of us, make a personal choice to put a full stop to all of this. We can look at others, not with tired eyes seeing only differences while resenting what they seem to have that we do not, but instead considering, “What have they experienced, endured, withstood? How is that similar to what I have known? Is it really better, as I am supposing? Or was it simply awful in a different way?” Or, “Did they have any advantages, no matter how slight, that I did not? Are they cognizant of and grateful for those advantages?” “Can I be strong enough to acknowledge that I may have had some advantage, even the slightest, denied to them?”

We can look, too, beyond stereotypes; recognize and refuse to be enmeshed in them. We can question everything we have been taught, seemed to see, heard, and then draw new conclusions, coming to a richer understanding of those who inhabit this world with us.

No matter what our misunderstanding and behavior has been in the past, we can choose this new reaction. We can, as Gandi remarked, be the change we wish to see in the world.

If we choose to let go of the concept of privilege, we may discover that we have infinite commonalities with people who might seem, superficially, to be our polar opposites. We might at last, and in relief, find that, in our common humanity, there is much more that binds us than separates us.

We might discover that we are all, in fact, simply part of the human family.

If you liked this essay, you might also appreciate “Cultural Appreciation”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from June 2, 2021.

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.