Prom Night

As women will do when gathered together day after day, when I worked in an office, we often found time to switch into “chat and gossip” mode. On one particular day in my memory, I recall that a supervisor had proudly displayed to a group of us ladies the prom photos taken of his oldest daughter. That sparked a discussion of school dances in general, and prom gowns specifically.

Each of the women present took turns describing her beloved senior or junior prom gowns and favorite dance dresses. I stayed on the periphery of this conversation, volunteering nothing, and fortunately each of the women was too wrapped up in fond memories of her own Cinderella moments to note my reticence.  My relief was enormous; I didn’t know what I would have said if they had turned to ask me about my dance dresses.  Made something up, perhaps – probably – because admitting the truth would have been humiliating: that I had never had a prom gown, nor even a dance dress.  I never wore one because I never went to a dance or a prom.  I did not go because I was not asked.  Without a date, a young woman of my generation didn’t have the opportunity to attend her own school prom.  She did not dare walk alone through the door onto the dance floor.

All of the women involved in the conversation that day were fifteen to twenty years younger than I. I knew that they could not possibly understand.  Contemporary young women would likely reel in disbelief and shock if faced with the restrictions we girls lived under in the late 1960s and early 70s.  If one did not have a date for a dance or a prom, one simply didn’t get to go.  I seriously doubt that a single girl would have been sold a ticket for her own prom—or, having wrangled a ticket, would not have been allowed to walk in alone. We, the overflow of plain young women without boyfriends or dates, simply bowed to the reality of the situation: we would not be asked, we would not attend. If we chafed under the restrictions, we were told that there was absolutely no point in railing against the situation.  It was just the things way were.

But somehow, at some point, it stopped being the way things were. The daughters of  “women’s libbers” and “hippies”, imbued with a sense of combativeness and personal worth that had been sadly absent in earlier generations, struck out on their own and refused to be tied to some male just in order to gain admission to their own school dances.  Happily single, they demanded tickets.  They bought their own corsages, slipped on their lovely gowns, tucked their feet into brand-new dancing shoes, and off they went.  Even if asked by a boyfriend to be their prom date, these brave young innovators sometimes refused to be coupled to one person and instead attended in groups of girlfriends, free to dance (or not) with whomever they pleased.

I not only admired those young women, but I was fiercely glad for them.

When my daughter and I went to a showing of the Disney movie Cinderella, I found myself biting my lip and blinking hard against tears when the title character is barred by her stepmother and sisters from attending the ball.  Later, as we left the theatre, I told my daughter, “That’s what it felt like, on the night of my senior prom.  That’s how I felt.”  Her own eyes sought mine in compassion and she squeezed my hand.

There were no fairy godmothers for the Cinderellas of my generation. And I had not the needed courage, perhaps, to change the sad state of my own affairs. But I have nothing but admiration for contemporary young women who neither need nor want fairy godmothers, nor pumpkin coaches, nor glass slippers—who reach out with no magic wands but that of their own self-assuredness and hard work to create the lives they want. And I hope every one of them dances, like the twelve dancing princesses of another fairy tale, long past midnight and until their shoes are worn through.

A Cultural Heritage

Decades ago, in the Lifestyle section of a local Sunday paper, I read an interesting series of articles about African Americans who were rediscovering the cultures of their heritage: the clothing, the music, the foods, even the religious beliefs of the tribes from which they had been stolen before being sold into slavery across the ocean.

The article described and pictured the magnificent, colorful woven cloths used in making African clothing, and the intricate music and dances which celebrated festivals and religious feasts. It discussed the complex oral historical traditions of various African tribes, and those which used written or pictorial histories.  It explained cosmetics and herbal medicines and child-rearing philosophies and recipes for cooked foods. It pictured beautiful works of sculpted wood. I found the entire series fascinating and instructive until very nearly the end, when one young woman was quoted.  She had committed to fully rediscovering her lost heritage, but finished by saying (and I don’t precisely remember the quote, but this is it’s essence) “I don’t think white people even have a cultural heritage.”

I put the newspaper down in dismay. Did it, I wondered, increase this young woman’s sense of self-worth to denigrate the cultures of other races; to blithely dismiss them, and to even deny their existence?

All these decades later, having taken DNA testing, I can confirm unequivocally my own cultural heritage. I know that the wild blends of color and fine weaving in the tartans of Scotland are part of that heritage (as is, god help me, haggis, surely the most ill-conceived dish ever to grace—and I use the verb flippantly—a table.)  I know that the astounding skirl of the bagpipes—agony to some ears, heart-stirring to others—are mine to claim.  The sculptures of Michelangelo and the paintings of Titian are tucked into another corner of that heritage, as are the marvels of many delicious pasta dishes.  I know that Marco Polo is not a swimming pool game, but possibly the reason that I have forever been an armchair explorer.  And I know that, sadly, the British genes I carry were quite likely those of people enslaved to the Roman conquerors who overran their land.  Slavery was once the cultural heritage of all people, everywhere; it was the norm.

In short, although I have not a single strand of DNA extracted from any black ancestor, I have just as rich, just as wildly beautiful and complex a cultural heritage as any of that stolen from enslaved Africans, dragged from their homes to the cruelty of western countries.

But my initial reaction to that long-ago quote in a newspaper article remains: Why was it necessary for the young woman to denigrate an entire group of people in order to bolster her own sense of self-worth and belonging? Why could she not rightfully reclaim her heritage without belittling that of others?

I still occasionally wonder if that young woman perhaps went on to explore the cultures of other countries, places outside those of Africa–especially those of people who, like her own, had been degraded and murdered and enslaved. Did she discover the photographs, some even carefully hand-painted, documenting the lost, rich cultures of the Native American tribes?  Did she learn about the horrors of Angel Island and how the Asian peoples emigrating to America were mistreated and vilified, right up to the shame of internment camps?  Did that young woman ever, in fact, realize that every race, every people, has a story, a past, a history of slavery, and a rich and fascinating cultural heritage?

If learning about her own stolen legacy did not, in fact, enrich and enlarge her mind, then everything she learned about her African heritage was, in the long view, an exercise in futility. For no form of learning is of value unless we can find a way to apply it to the world at large.

The Slave Cabin

When I was in my mid-twenties, I first visited and then lived for three years in Charleston, South Carolina. There was much I loved about the city; always a history buff, it was wonderful to live in a place where so much of U.S. history was tangible in just  walk down the street.  Battery Park, carriage rides, ancient graveyards, the city market, and Fort Sumter; gigantic ancient live oaks, Magnolia and Middleton plantations, Drayton and Boone Hall, flower-sellers in the streets, hearing the lilting, deep tones of the “gullah” still spoken by the descendants of enslaved people…  For one who loves history, it was a glorious place to dwell.

But the darker history of Charleston, from the indentured servitude of its earliest settlers to the hell that was slavery, was (at least in those decades ago that I lived there) rarely on display, especially to tourists. In the 1980s, racism was still casually accepted and rife throughout the city.  The large insurance company for which I briefly worked had to be forced by the head office in New York to hire its first African American agent.

History, as is often said, is written by the winners. But the truth is still out there, if one is open-minded and willing to search, to look.  And the truth of Charleston’s history came home to me in one swift and sickening moment when I was still just a visitor to the lovely city.

My soon-to-be mother-in-law and I had gone on a tour of one of the larger plantations—possibly Middleton or Magnolia, I think, although I don’t now recall precisely which one. Entranced, we moved from room to room in the mansion. I recall comparing in my own mind the luxury of modern, expensive homes to this gem from a previous century: admiring the beautiful, hand-crafted furniture and ceramics, the jewel-toned carpets on polished wooden floors; marveling over the cloudy, bubble-filled antique glazing of the windows; cringing over the lack of sanitation and the primitive facilities for preparing meals.  Our tour guide was a wealth of detailed information, and I was enjoying every minute of sightseeing until the moment when she took us through a door out into the nearby grounds of the mansion.  There, with a casual wave of her hand, she indicated the adjoining cabins—the homes, she explained, of the house “servants”.

Slave cabins.

Side by side with the main house, just a few steps away so that (one assumes) the occupants could quickly to enter the mansion each morning, stood a row of rough, log-walled, earth-floored shacks.

Coming from the relative luxury of the plantation house, the dichotomy was shattering. I felt physically ill as, separating from the tour group, I walked to the door of one of the slave cabins and looked inside to the gloomy darkness.

Never had the ugly reality of American slavery been brought home to me more forcefully then it was in that moment, standing in the dark doorway of a slave cabin on the plantation grounds. I reminded myself that in the unspoken caste system of slavery, the house slaves considered themselves a cut above the lowly field workers. But this—this was their reality.  A decrepit shack, smaller even than the log cabins of the first American settlers.  Four walls, a shake roof, a stone fireplace, an earthen floor. This was the home of the highest caste of slaves.

Each day, they walked from that degrading housing to the carpets and china and silver and glass of their owners’ mansion, to serve according to the whims of those lucky enough to be born Caucasian. Each day.

I’ve experienced many other sudden revelations of truth in my time on this earth—possibly, probably, just as vital, just as powerful, as that eye-opening moment of revelation of the unbearable ugliness of slavery.

But (perhaps because of my youth on that long-ago day in Charleston), few of those revelations stand out as powerfully, or as painfully unforgettable, in my memory, as the experience of standing in the slave cabin outside the door of the plantation manor.

Taking Down the Christmas

2017 Christmas Treet

Today, as I always phrase it, I “took down the Christmas”.

The fireplace mantel, deep in dust after four weeks covered in garland and lights and candles, shines once more under an application of lemon oil. The cheerfully-decorated wax taper candles—the ones that cost me so many hours of searching to find in a world that seems now to use only LED lights–have been wrapped in tissue and gently stored.

Outside, the garlands draping each carriage light have been removed. The Yule wreath once more resides on a hook within the coat closet, having been replaced with a sign celebrating the next holiday to come, St. Valentine’s Day.

The bright red placemats and napkins have been discarded to the laundry hamper, as have the decorated hand towels from the bathrooms. The live mistletoe, dry to brittleness, is wrapped in a paper napkin and carefully enclosed within a glass dish, where myth and legend say it will now protect my home from fire.

The cheerful Christmas cards have not been discarded; as always, I’ve placed them thoughtfully into the boxes of ornaments and garland. Next holiday season, as I once more take out all the precious Christmas décor, I will find them there.  I will sit and reread each of the loving, thoughtful sentiments, perhaps with a personal message added; I will look at the photographs enclosed; I will, perhaps, shed a tear, coming across the card sent to me by someone beloved who is now gone.  Then, and only then, will I discard the holiday cards, having once more relived the pleasure of receiving them and their loving messages.

The tree has been crushed down to its smallest size and crammed into the garage. Each of the boxes of ornaments has been specifically labeled (Breakable Ornaments. Unbreakable Ornaments.  Most Precious Ornaments.  Angel.  Stockings and Stocking Holders) and stacked in yet another corner of the packed garage.

The beautiful crocheted lace and cutwork tablecloth, handworked more than a half-century ago by the Italian great-aunts, has been delicately laundered and starched and pressed, and then folded into its special storage box. In its place once more resides the tapestry cloth given me a decade ago by my beloved late mother-in-law—just as beautiful and precious, yet different.

All the living room furnishings once again reside in their proper place. No more the rocker crammed up against the fireplace hearth; the green armchair blocking the path to the French doors.  Instead, there is space to walk a normal path through the room.

Everything is, in fact, brighter and cleaner and more orderly and spacious than it was just a few hours ago.

And sadder. Somehow, infinitely sadder.

The Oak King and the Holly King

It is a night in prehistory, someplace in the area that will one day be called Britain. Those in this tiny village of mud thatched roundhouses live a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence, eking a few precious crops from the soil each summer season, hunting and fishing, gathering from the wild.  They pray each summer  for a bountiful harvest, that they might have enough to survive the coming winter.

The nights have been growing colder for many weeks now, but, what is even more frightening, they have been growing longer. The elders in the village say that this has happened before; many times, in fact.  The sun rises later and later, sets earlier and earlier, and each successive night lasts longer.  The elders have grown wise merely by the act of surviving so many repetitions of this occurrence.  And so they choose the largest, hardest, longest-burning oak logs and set them aside for what they know is coming: the Dark Night.  The Long Night.  The fearful night when Darkness overpowers the Light.  They set that hardy wood aside for the night when everyone in this little village will huddle together, seeking warmth, and desperately hoping that this time, this time once more, the Darkness will not win.  The unbearable, long night will end, must end, and the morning sun be reborn.

And as they huddle together about the bright light of that long-burning log, stories are told. Legends are born.  For the light of the log is like passion, like the heat of battle, and so surely it must represent a battle – the battle of Light and Darkness.  Perhaps it is two great Kings who are battling ,  or even Gods  (for there must always be kings and gods – someone, after all, must be in charge of all this.)   Perhaps one of these God Kings lives within the oak log itself, the oak twined with ivy, ivy which remains green even in winter, and with mistletoe, that mystic plant which appears growing high in the trees without reason or explanation.  This Oak King must be battling the Holly King, whose sharp, thorny green plant bears red berries like blood.

And what of the sun, the golden sun, the longed-for sun? Drawing perhaps on some misty memory of an ancient  sun-scorched land known only from legend, they recall the myth of  Nuit, starry Goddess of the Night Sky, from whose body each morning the sun was reborn.  Surely a God King must have a wife: a wife pregnant, laboring, struggling to give birth to the Sun.  A family — a family and history remembered even by those who have no memories of that land.  (It will be centuries yet before another small family will fly into Egypt, that ancient land of the starry Goddess…)

And so at sundown, the Great Battle commences: the battle for the very Earth itself. If the Holly King wins, the laboring Goddess will perish in childbirth, the sun never be reborn, and the Earth and all its inhabitants will die.

But the Holly King never wins. Time after time, battle after battle, he is slain, dying as he knows he must die: King, and God, and Sacrifice.  Darkness never conquers the Light.  And at the moment of dawn, the Queen of Heaven once again gives birth to the Child who is the Light.

And so it is that all the ancient legends blend, and twine, and intermingle, into this singular neverending Truth: that though the Darkness may gain sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes minutes, its reign upon the Earth and her peoples must always, eventually fade; that sacrifice and courage and wisdom enable one to battle through the long and fearful night; that the pain and toil of women who carry and labor the children of the Earth into existence allows us always to persist and continue.

And now in closing this ancient but always-new tale, I send (as Fra Giovanni once wrote in his Christmas Greeting, quoting the great Song of Solomon), “…the hope that for you, now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.”

 

The Jonah Thanksgiving

Jonah Days. We all have them: those days when everything goes wrong.  L.M. Montgomery, eloquently described a Jonah Day in the second book of her Anne of Green Gable series, when the plucky red-headed heroine reaches the end of her tether on just such a day and – in a complete reversal of every tenet she has ever expressed and holds dear – spanks one of her students.  The scene itself and the passages that follow are delightfully written, completely evocative of the frustration and chagrin that all of us have experienced on our own Jonah Days.

On the night before Thanksgiving two years ago, I recalled that book and laughed ruefully. I’d just had my own Jonah day, and if I’d had a student to spank, I’d have been reaching for a paddle. If a day itself could have been whacked, I’d have done it. I’d reached the end of my tether and a bit beyond.

The morning had begun gloriously. It was very warm for November, and the day was sunny.  Newly retired, I knew had plenty of time for the cooking I would be doing for our family Thanksgiving.  So that morning I’d prepared the pastry shells for four pumpkin pies and, as I usually do, carried the huge bowl of filling over to where the shells waited, coddled in their pie pans, on the oven racks.  This was the way I’d always filled the pie shells — carefully dipping out the filling into each shell with a ladle.

I dropped the whole bowl of filling. Four pies worth of filling.  Onto the oven door.

Later that day, the bread I was baking rose over the pan, spilling onto the oven floor and beginning to burn. The house quickly filled with smoke, triggering four smoke alarms.  Those alarms are, of course, set too high on the walls to be reached without a stepstool. I ran to grab my stepstool…but a friend had borrowed it. Frantic in the midst of shrieking klaxons, I found myself hauling a heavy wooden kitchen chair up the stairwell to turn off the upstairs alarms.

The chaos of the morning and afternoon seeming to have subsided, I decided that giving myself a manicure would relax me. The bottle of nail polish tipped onto my white leather hassock, but I congratulated myself that I’d covered the leather with wax paper before starting the manicure.  Once finished, I carefully tidied up my basket of manicure supplies, putting them back into perfect order, and admiring how well organized the basket now was  Then I carried the basket upstairs to put it away.  And at the very top of the stairwell, I dropped it.  Bottles of polish, emery boards, pumice stones, scissors, cuticle oil, clippers, cotton balls and swabs, bottles of remover…all went tumbling down the stairwell, bouncing and scattering, the bottle of remover opening and splashing acetone all over the carpet.

I sighed, cleaned up the mess, and unceremoniously dumped everything any which way back into the basket.

The stairwell was apparently my greatest nemesis that day, however, because a short while later, as I started down the steps, I tripped. I fell and slid all the way to the landing, twisting my ankle and wrenching my back.

I cried, clapped an ice pack on my throbbing ankle, and finally hobbled upstairs for a soothing hot shower.

While I was in the shower, my phone rang. I decided to let the answering machine take it and finish my shower.  I didn’t listen to the message until I’d gotten into my pajamas.

My Dad had called. His friend was taking him to the hospital. He thought he might be having a stroke.

I threw my clothes back on, called other family members, and raced through the night to the hospital.

Dad had not, after all, had a stroke; he’d suffered an anxiety attack and his blood pressure had spiraled out of control. He was going to be just fine.  That was a great comfort as we all wearily wended our way home shortly before midnight.

The holiday was not, as I recall, the most scintillating of Thanksgiving days, given that we were all exhausted and drained. But I knew I had much to be grateful for, not the least of which was that Dad was okay.

And that my personal Jonah Day was finally, finally over.

Ghost Kitty Walks

A Spooky Little Halloween Poem for Mya and Kai
by Aunt Beckett ©2016

Gentle Ghost Kitty lives
In the little brown house
At the end of the bend in the road.
He had lived there alive
With his human, Dianne.
But for so long he’s been all alone!

For Dianne moved away
To a far-distant home.
But small Ghost Kitty stayed where he’d died.
There he wandered and moped,
So bewildered and sad,
And so lonely for such a long time!

For Ghost Kitty walks
And Ghost Kitty talks
In a tiny, well-bred “Mew!”
And Ghost Kitty looks for someone to love,
Purring, “I am calling you!”

It was then I moved in
To the little brown house
At the end of the bend in the street.
And one day, living there,
As I sat down to read,
Something sat down with me,
At my feet!

Something I could not see
Cuddled there beside me
And I reached but I touched empty air.
And yet somehow I knew
A small cat sat by me.
A cat purring and snuggling was there!

For Ghost Kitty walks
And Ghost Kitty talks
In a tiny, well-bred “Mew!”
And Ghost Kitty nestled by my side,
Purring, “I think I like you!”

An now sometimes I see,
From one blink to the next,
A small shadow that walks like the wind.
And I smile to myself, knowing that he is here,
For small Ghost Kitty, he’s my best friend.

For Ghost Kitty walks
And Ghost Kitty talks
In a tiny, well-bred “Mew!”
And Ghost Kitty snuggles by my side,
Purring, “I’ll stay here with you.!”