Racism Knows No Logic

§   This post originally appeared on January 18, 2018, as a continuation of previous posts, and was titled, “And Speaking of Prejudice…”  With all that has so painfully happened in our country in recent days, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit it.  §

Marie Gregory
Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s High School  Graduation Photo

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960’s.  Bias against the faith did not fade until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today have never learned the truth about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess eleven Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Ruggiere trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Postscript:  On April 12, 2019, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a woman of color, did the next right thing, making an effort to heal this century-old wound by formally apologizing for the mass lynching of these innocent Italian Americans.  “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward,” she said.  I believe it brought peace to my Grandmother ‘s spirit that this conciliatory gesture was made, coincidentally, on the birthday of my daughter, her great-grandaughter.

Be Prepared

§   Throughout my life, I took Otto Frank as my role model. “Be prepared” might have been engraved across my forehead.   § 

I first read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl when I was about 12 years old. It fascinated and enthralled me; horrified me and completely broke my heart. I loved every word of it. Yet I can’t say, even now, that Anne was my hero. Oh, I loved that teenager; felt that I understood her and empathized with her highs and lows; laughed over her astute, witty, and oftentimes rude descriptions of the inhabitants of the Secret Annex. But, no, my real hero in that story was Anne’s father, Otto Frank. Without Otto Frank’s sagacity, without his careful preparation that took his family into hiding and the precious two years of life he gained for them and their companions—well, without that, Anne’s diary would never have been written.

Despite the betrayal that doomed them to the horrors of the Nazi death camps, Otto Frank did his best to protect his family, and for that reason, he became my hero. He thought ahead. He prepared. At only the age 12, I was in awe of his wisdom, his far-sighted perception.

All these many years later, I realize that throughout my life, I took Otto Frank as my role model. “Be prepared” might have been engraved across my forehead. Think ahead. Plan ahead.  Have a contingency fund as part of my household budget; keep a fire escape ladder in my second-floor bedroom. Buy a gun and learn to shoot. Be ready, not just in my personal life, but for where I thought the world might be heading.

As a young adult living alone, part of that preparation involved a technique which I came to call “a pair and a spare”. Even when I lived in a one-room apartment, my tiny larder and under-counter fridge were always as full as I could afford to keep them. After all, I lived alone; were I to be sick, unable to get out to shop, I would need supplies on hand. (Only once did this far-sighted plan fail me, when a long week’s housebound illness preceded one of the worst blizzards that Indiana had ever experienced.) Later, when I had more storage space, my technique evolved further.  A pair and a spare. One bottle of liquid soap beneath the sink; two in the pantry. Six onions in the vegetable bin; twelve potatoes. An open box of breakfast cereal; two in abeyance. A roll of toilet paper on each dispenser; three more in a basket in each bathroom; a full package in the bathroom closet. A box of tissues in each room; an equal, unopened number of boxes stored.

Much later, I read about preppers.  While not quite convinced of their sanity, I  nevertheless incorporated a few of their ideas. I laughed my way through the Millennial Bug nonsense (smiling smugly when all the clocks went on ticking and computers running),  but disease was, I believed, a different matter.  The very first cases of Legionnaire’s Disease tumbled into headlines, and then the threat of Swine Flu.  The SARS outbreak splashed into the news, and then MERS, and then Ebola. It was reasonable to expect that if a pandemic, or even just a plain old epidemic, arose, getting out to make purchases might be a fraught experience.  With each outbreak, I made certain I had more than I would usually have on hand my home: canned goods, paper goods, soup, pasta, rice, beans, peanut butter, OTC medications. Utilities, too, might be disrupted, so keeping some jugs of water available seemed like a sensible idea, along with candles, matches, oil lamps. If nothing else, it was all very useful during power outages! Nothing I ever bought was to outrageous excess; each time when the threat passed, my extra supplies were very quickly absorbed into daily use. But, had they been needed, they were available.

So when the first whispers of the coronavirus arose, I began my usual routine. Very early in January, long before the initial case of the disease was identified in the U.S., I began storing essential items. A pair and a spare, not just for myself, but a bit of extra for my daughter and son-in-law and their toddler, just in case. I might not need powdered milk, but it would be there if needed for my granddaughter.   My pets, too–my elderly cats eat a special diet, but I  keep only a week’s worth in the cabinet.  Now multiple cans went into the pantry, and I made room in my garage for several more cat litter sacks than would usually be stacked there.  And, yes, there was a spare package of toilet paper!

And this time, finally, all the supplies were needed. Indiana went into lockdown status on March 23, days after panic buying had all but stripped the shelves bare. Secure in my preparations, I did not need to brave the possibly-infected, rude rush of people out storming the stores. My pantry and garage were stocked with goods enough to see me through at least a few weeks of quarantine, with enough to spare for the people I most love, if needed.   I was prepared.  A pair and a spare…

I like to think Otto Frank might have smiled, just a little.

 

Three Things

§   I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude.  §

I was experiencing a fully-justifiable meltdown not long ago, and turned to a trusted friend for advice.  Her reply was not the one I anticipated, and at first I was taken aback: Right this minute, she told me, right now, name three things for which you’re grateful.  Write them down, she advised.

My initial response was resentment.  Was she minimizing my feelings?  Did she believe my depression and fears weren’t warranted?  But I know this woman very well, and trust her even more, so I had to conclude that minimizing or belittling my feelings was in no way part of her agenda.

So I took a deep breath, settled myself down, and picked up a pen and paper.  Three things.  Just three things.

It was hard…and then it wasn’t hard at all.

I was grateful for my family.  Once–for many years, in fact—sundered, we were now united once more.  I was grateful for my toddler granddaughter, whom I love beyond life itself.  I was grateful for my dear little condo, the home I had never thought I would have.  I was grateful for my four porch-rescue cats.  I might have saved them from a life as ferals, but they daily saved me with their love and attention.  I was grateful that my Dad, age 91, was still with us.  Few people get to have a parent in their life that long, and even at the times when he drove me nuts, I still loved him.  I was grateful to have survived cancer, to have had two years cancer-free.

I was grateful, I was grateful….  I filled an entire page with statements of gratitude, and possibly could have kept on going.  But when I put my pen down, I realized that, although nothing that had caused my meltdown had actually changed, I  had changed.  Oh, I was still distressed over a very dreadful situation, but at the core and center of my being, I felt calmer—not relaxed, not at ease, but calmer, and better able to deal with my problems.

I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude when what I really wanted to do was write out a list of people whose noses I wanted to punch!  I learned that, as a result of early childhood abuse, ‘fight or flight’ was always my go-to response, even when it was not really warranted; that I felt constantly beleaguered.  I learned that there is a difference between a healthy, justifiable anger, and simple rage.  I learned that my feelings were, actually, under my control.  No one could “make” me feel anything; I chose my responses.

I’d like to say that this exercise taught me a lesson, and that it’s a strategy I now always employ.  I’d like to say that, but it would be a big, fat lie.  Three Things is usually the last thing I remember to do when I’m caught in a distressing situation.

But when I do settle down and remember to do it, it opens a gateway to an entirely new perspective on any situation.

Oddly enough, there had been a time in my life when I spent a few minutes every morning writing out a sentence—or sometimes four or six or more–of gratitude.  I usually chose to do this as I rode the bus into work each morning, putting that empty time to good use.  And then, when I had been engaged in this process for several months, my entire world collapsed around me.  My husband walked out to live with his “true love”, and I became at the stroke of a pen a divorcee and single parent.  I recall now the rage I felt, asking the Universe exactly why, WHY, when I had been practicing daily gratitude, such a load of total crap had fallen upon my head.  Emotional anguish, not just for me, but for our child.  Financial distress times ten, as I paid for the divorce, found us a place to live, acquired used furnishings, moved.  Physical suffering, as the stress I was experiencing led me to fall ill one time after another, so that for over a year, I was constantly sick.  Depression so severe that suicide began to seem a viable option.  Why, when I had been practicing gratitude so unfailingly?  Why did all this evil befall me when I had been doing the right thing?

I don’t recall that the Universe ever answered my questions, but I do remember that, perhaps a year later, I came to the realization that, had I not been making a daily practice of gratitude when my safe and familiar world collapsed around me, I would have been in a far worse mental state than I actually endured. I had not seen at that time—perhaps had not wanted to see—that my practice of gratitude had acted as a shield around my emotional state, buoying me so that I did not completely drown in my own misery.

Three things.  Just three things, on the worst of days, in the most dreadful of situations.  It is hard, sometimes even painful.  But it makes all the difference in the world.

My “Nosy” Encounter

§   Thinking back on this incident, I’m both sad and proud. Sad, because I can see why vicious hate speech is so common in our society; proud, because I avoided my first reaction to grab the little snot and slap her. §

Well before the advent of the current social distancing, I was tooling about the Super Big Evilmart, when I happened upon an acquaintance (and, following what occurred, I suppose I’m glad that she was merely an acquaintance, not a friend, and now is no longer either). This woman was shopping with her pre-teen daughter and the daughter’s friend, and stopped to make conversation for a few minutes.

At a slight pause in the “Hi, how are you, what’s been happening” remarks, the pre-teen daughter, with a maliciously gleeful look crossing her young face, broke in with a question of her own. “Why is your nose SO BIG?!” she demanded. She and her friend broke into uproarious giggles at her non-joke.

The young woman’s mother, looking uneasy, exclaimed her daughter’s first and middle names.  (As we all know from childhood, one name = Mom Conversation; two names = Mom’s Mad; three names = Duck and Cover!)  Her tone was that scolding timbre that mothers use exclusively to upbraid their misbehaving offspring. The girls paid her no mind, continuing to giggle, collapsing upon one another in their Mean Girl success.  The mother looked away from them, facing me with an sickly smile, unable to quite look me in the eye. Notably absent, though, was any apology from her for the girls’ misbehavior or even verbal acknowledgement of their insolence.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I know that my nose is, indeed, quite large. NoseWhile perhaps not of Cyrano dimensions, nevertheless one could probably mold at least two, if not three, average-sized noses from my beak. I’ve worn this honker on my face for 66 years, so I have no illusions about it. But those of my generation who weren’t headed off to Hollywood didn’t rush out to the cosmetic surgeon to have every body part from eyelids to labia altered to meet some insanely unrealistic cultural standard. Still, had I ever possessed both the funds and the time, I might have chosen to have my nose “fixed”. But, there you have it: it’s my nose, and I’ve worn it for a lifetime. It serves its purpose—to keep me breathing—and I’ve learned to accept it.

But it’s one thing to know I have a nose the size of Montana, and quite another thing to have some obnoxious, flippant little smartass point it out. My nose was bequeathed me via the Italian genes in my family, and staunchly half-Roman as I am, standing there in that humiliating situation, realization struck me in one blinding flash of comprehension: Although my family members casually and even proudly refer to one another on occasion as “Wops”,  it is done only amongst ourselves. Woe betide the outsider who uses such an appellation to reference us!

The same rule, then, applied to my facial appendage. I could say all I wanted that I have a snozzle the size of farm machinery, but no one else, ever, got to make that comparison.

So, after waiting the required beat for this kid’s Mom to grab her offending offspring by the upper arm and haul her forward to face me while demanding, “Apologize! Right this instant!”—well, with none of that forthcoming, I waded into the fray with my reply. “That was rude, cruel and unnecessary,” I addressed Miss Preteen, narrowing my eyes and dropping my vocal tone into the “verging on nuclear meltdown” registry. “It doesn’t show you to be ‘cute’; it just shows you to be badly behaved and not particularly intelligent. And it reflects badly on your mother, who I’m sure did not raise you to be so ill-mannered.”

The two girls stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. But the truly remarkable reaction was that of the mother. She just gathered up her bags in a close embrace and remarked, “Well, we’ve got to be getting home.” She turned and made a rapid exit with both girls trailing in her wake, casting wide-eyed glances at me over their shoulders.

Reflecting on the incident now, I’m both saddened and proud. Sad, because I can easily see why vicious hate speech, insults, trolling, and threats are so common in our society, from our reporter-insulting President on downward. Proud, because my actual first reaction, carefully reined in, had been to grab the little snot and slap her until her head rolled off her shoulders and bounced across the floor. It took an amazing amount of personal restraint for me not to do this, so, as I say, I am proud.

It’s painfully clear to me now that manners, as well as self-restraint, are rarely being taught to, far less required of many of  today’s children. And that is, I think, a tragedy, and one that we, as a society, will come to greatly regret.

The Color of Grief: A Very Different Mother’s Day Tale

§   I  passed those months in the Valley of the Shadow…  §

Long after my mother’s passing, I attended a grief support group. Despite the length of time—years—that had elapsed since my mother’s death, I nevertheless gained much benefit from the class, learning a great deal about the varied and painful paths people must take on their long walk to healing, and why mine was not so unusual after all.

But my mother’s death, while it had a profound effect upon my life, was far from being the worst grief I had ever experienced. Because our relationship had been so difficult, I mourned her actual passing less than I grieved the woman who could have been, and never was.

But I had already experienced a grief so deep, a mourning so overwhelming, that it required interminable months of recovery. I went through this dark and harsh landscape of heartache when I miscarried my first pregnancy in a terrible event known medically as a “missed abortion”. Put simply, the fetus that I carried died, but my body refused to miscarry. I carried my longed-for baby dead, knowing it to be dead, for a full three weeks before medical intervention became necessary to prevent infection.

Never in my life have I done anything harder than carry my potential child, dead, for three weeks. My mourning began the moment the doctor said the words, “You do not have a viable pregnancy,” and did not end for months after the D&C had scraped the useless contents from my uterus.

Other than having left work early on the day I began bleeding, and for two days following the actual surgery, during those three weeks I held my head up and struggled into the office every day, working in a haze of emotional and physical pain so deep that it now leaves me breathless, remembering. (A few months later, my supervisor would grade me down on my annual review for using too many sick days…) But, beyond coping with my grief, the hardest thing I experienced during that time was not the necessity of dragging myself to my job, or being deemed a slacker, or even the agonizing process of packing up all the baby items I’d already purchased or crocheted.

It was dealing with the fact that I lost all my color vision.

Never, never have I read anywhere, then or since, of this inexplicable phenomenon that I experienced, when the grieving process stripped nearly all the color from my vision. All hues become muted; some were nearly  invisible. Wrapped in the dark cloak of my mourning, I didn’t really notice at first. But after a few days, I recognized that my vision had changed. A coworker wearing a strident hot pink dress seemed to me to be clothed in a pale ash rose. The normal blinding white of typing paper appeared a muted ivory. The burgeoning spring weather, with with flowers bursting into bud and trees cloaked in green lace, seemed to me almost as greyscale as the end of winter had been. Everything I looked at was filtered through a lens of grey and sepia.

I wondered idly if I should see an optometrist, or if the change would be permanent. But it didn’t matter; nothing really mattered. I scraped through the days, always thinking about how far my lost pregnancy would have advanced had I not miscarried, and wondering if I would ever have a child.

Then, finally, my grieving process began to wind to its natural close. Slowly, almost like spring appearing in fits and starts and regressions, normal tints and hues began to return, albeit palely, to my world. Finally, one day I looked at the indicator on a positive pregnancy test—and awoke the next morning to vision that was once more capable of seeing the world in a Disney-esque “paradise of color”.

I had passed months, though, in the Valley of the Shadow; in a world that was as dim and muted as though filtered through cloudy lenses of pale brown and subtle grey.

As I say, I have never read of this phenomenon anywhere, although I’ve researched it since, many times, looking for some explanation of the loss of my color vision for those  months. I suppose a psychiatrist would diagnose some type of conversion disorder—what would once have been termed a hysterical syndrome. Hysterical blindness and deafness have, I believe, been well-documented for centuries. So why not hysterical color-blindness? That may be as good an explanation as any.

But for me, looking back on the long weeks that I dealt, silently, with the loss of all the color in my world, the phenomenon was a blessing. Seeing a world of vivid, bright, beautiful spring and summer colors during my weeks of bitter anguish would have been almost more than I could bear.

It was, perhaps, a strange way to grieve for my lost child. But it helped me heal. And I will always remember the wonder of the newly-bright world on the day when the color returned.

 

 

 

There’s Always One

§   Heaven help all of us who have a Looney Tunes neighbor!  §

Everybody has one. A looney neighbor, that is.

The particular thorn in my side, best known to me as The Old Curmudgeon, seemed fairly normal when I originally moved to my small condo seven years ago. Oh, there was the time when he insulted my status as a State employee, but after 30-plus years, I was accustomed to that. People who arrive at a government office to make any one of the many transactions required by official entities think nothing of berating and disparaging the very employees who provide those services.

Despite the insult, I am the sort of person who attempts to be a good neighbor. The Old Curmudgeon was retired; I was still working. I’d often return home on trash pickup day to see that his bin, emptied, was still sitting out near the road. So, after wheeling my own bin back into my garage, I’d haul his up the slight incline of our conjoined driveways and park it in front of his garage door. I never received a word of thanks from T.O.C. for this neighborly act. Perhaps he thought the elves and fairies were doing him the favor.

Our condo association does not trim shrubbery, so I took care to maintain the small bush that was positioned between our two garages, as well, shaping and mulching it regularly. I weeded the area within the low brick enclosure surrounding our mailboxes, then cleared out the overgrowth of wild plants and saplings that had taken root around our  air conditioning units where they sat side by side behind our condos. Again, no thanks were forthcoming, but I reminded myself that I was doing this act as much for my own benefit as his. We had a bit of a tussle, though, over my rotted mailbox post, which the condominium association was supposed to repair (see Laughter in the Midst of Grief, December 27, 2018), but the problem was eventually resolved, and I, in absolute innocence, got my revenge, anyway. (Yes, you’ll really have to read that earlier post!)

And then I got The Letter.

I have The Letter to this day.   The victim of a careless postman who left the mailbox door slightly open in a rainstorm, it is waterlogged and smeared and difficult to read, but basically claims that I had moved my central AC unit closer to his, thereby causing the compressor of his unit to fail, and he was allowing me two weeks to move it back to its original position.

I was flabbergasted. MOVED my central air conditioning unit? That piece of equipment was huge! I was at the time age 61, and asthmatic, but even in the rudest of health and youth, I could not even have shifted the darned thing.

Ever the little peacemaker, I simply knocked on his door and asked what the heck he was talking about. That was when I learned the truth: While having his own AC repaired, he interpreted a “look” on the part of the repairman, glancing between our two machines, to indicate that my unit was too close to his own and had caused the failure. (Six and one-half inches closer than it had previously been, he claimed. I forbore to point out that there was something strangely Freudian about this claim.) Basically, T.O.C. was looking for something to blame besides the age of his AC unit, and hoping to make me pay for it.

I explained that I had not, would not, could not, have moved the machine, but promised to have my own HVAC tech look at the problem during my upcoming maintenance appointment and determine if the units were badly positioned. (They weren’t.)  An exchange of more letters—straightforward on my part, rude and accusatory on his—didn’t really conclude the problem, but it eventually drifted away since absolutely nothing supported his position.

However, inadvertent clues in his letters revealed one thing: Whenever I was outside on my own patio, Looney Tunes was watching me. Keeping an eye out. Running survillance. Snooping on me. Gladys Kravitz, without the comic relief.

This, more than anything, totally freaked me out. (Think: head spinning backwards!) What on earth did he think he would see?! And how long had this been going on? Since the day I moved in?

Terribly disturbed, I began installing a careful shield of garden trellis and ivy to block his view of my patio. Now, years later, with the ivy having grown thick and tall, I at last feel comfortable sitting out on my own patio once more. Look away, you nutcase! All you’re gonna see is a thick veil of ivy leaves.

However, necessity demands that I sometimes step off the patio into my tiny postage-stamp of a yard, as I did recently when an overnight windstorm carried my outdoor rocking chairs out and down the grassy alley to drop them behind his condo. Hurrying out the next morning to retrieve them, I glanced up and saw the faint shadow of what was surely a face peering out his window.

But time has made me stronger and a touch more brazen. Instead of quickly scurrying away with my furniture, and aware that he could not hear me, anyway, I merely smiled and gave a quick little finger wave as my inner rascal took over.

“Hi there!” I sparkled. “Don’t worry! I’m just moving my air conditioner!”

 

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

§   Unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step backwards into my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of a little girl so like myself.  §

When I was in the fifth grade, my all-time favorite teacher, Miss Shireman, gave me a book to read titled Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.   That book, written by Rumer Godden, became a lifeline for me.

The story describes the adventures of the eight-year-old Nona, who has been sent home from India to live with her British relatives. Lost in a unfamiliar culture, surrounded by strangers, cut off from everything she has ever known, Nona retreats into herself, terrified and abandoned, until she is given the gift of two Japanese dolls (the Miss Happiness and Miss Flower of the title).

I can say without intentional punning that the book spoke volumes to me.

I still recall Miss Shireman asking me if I was enjoying the book, and my enthusiastic reply. She smiled as she remarked that she’d been sure I would like it. Looking back through the mists of time, now, I wonder—how did she know? How did she know that I, enduring my first year in a new school and feeling so frightened and lonely that I could have died, needed that story? But Miss Shireman always seemed to understand what her young students were thinking and feeling, and did whatever she could to mitigate their distress.

A large part of the book concerns the Japanese doll house which the main character’s cousin builds for her dolls. I remember trying unsuccessfully to convince my older brother to build such a dollhouse for me. I also remember him throwing very cold water on the idea! But not long ago, reminiscing about my own daughter’s childhood dollhouse, now stored in the attic of my father’s home, I unexpectedly recalled the Japanese dollhouse of the story, and the book itself, and how much it meant to the child I’d once been.

Misses Happiness and FlowerIntrigued, I searched for the book, locating a copy on a used book site. The price was not exorbitant, and I could not resist; I immediately slapped down my credit card to order it. The precious book appeared in my mailbox during the weeks of Covid-19 lockdown, and I reverently carried it into the house like the treasure it was.

Already, during the weary hours and days of lockdown, I’d learned that I was resistant to reading anything new. Despite the fact that reading is my passion, I faced hourly headlines summarizing chaos, death and panic.  I couldn’t bear to begin a novel. A new book might kill off a character I liked, or direct a series down a route that I hadn’t wanted it to go. It might be badly written, or irritating or upsetting.

Instead, I took comfort in rereading both old and recent favorites: Tracey Quinn’s hilarious Breezy Spoon Diner series and Clara Benson’s marvelous Angela Marchmont mysteries.  The timeless classics of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting. The Moonspinners.  I delved into the familiar, fantastic and funny world of Kim Watt’s Beaufort Scales dragon cozies. I travelled once more to Aunt Bessie’s home on the Isle of Mann, and the secretive world of McIntyre’s Gulch in the Canadian north.

And now, unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step even further back into my comfort zone, communing with my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of the little girl I had so resembled. There she was, just as I remembered her: a young girl trying to adapt to a totally unfamiliar setting, friendless and frightened—exactly the situation in which I had lived at that age.

Rereading the book, I was delighted to find it just as enchanting a story as I recalled.  I marveled at the fact that at age 10, I’d been able to work my way without help through unfamiliar British terms and spellings, and to visualize a town so different from those that I, a suburban kid, had always known. How astounding and wonderful to have a bookstore on the same street as one’s home! And my adult-self thanked heaven that the book, written in 1960, predated the British changeover to the metric system, for then I might have been truly lost.

But what I really gained from re-reading this childhood favorite was a surprising realization of my own unquenchable spirit. At age 10, living in a new house that was not yet a home, lost and frightened in an unfamiliar neighborhood, too shy to make friends easily and trapped in a troubled, chaotic family situation, I, like the little girl of the story, somehow still found ways to adapt: to make friends, to be brave.

Half a century later, navigating the unfamiliar waterways of lockdown and pandemic, trapped in a home that’s begun to feel more like a prison than familiar territory, and lonelier than I have ever been throughout a very solitary life, I find it once more necessary to call upon that unquenchable spirit. She is in there still, somewhere, that inner child; that flame of life force reignited by a childhood memory and a beloved story. She is still finding ways to adapt; to be a friend to herself, and, most of all, to be brave.

Surviving the Lockdown

§   Despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty.  I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.  §

Like a good portion of the nation right now, I am living in a State that is “on lockdown”. Those who work in essential fields – hospitals, groceries, pharmacies, that sort of thing—are permitted to go to their jobs; others who can work from home are doing so. Schools are closed (and a friend who has taught for many years tells me that preparing the e-learning lessons and homeschooling packets is much more difficult and time consuming than just showing up in the classroom and teaching). The children without internet access struggle through trying to complete instruction without a teacher, while far too many children who are much too young to be doing so are dealing with minimal supervision. Others who depend upon school meals for their nutrition make due with sack lunches cobbled together at school cafeterias, picked up and then ferried home.

I, who am retired and living alone, am blessedly exempt from many of the stresses endured by those around me as all of us seclude ourselves from an invisible enemy. I am aware of and grateful for my good fortune. I do not have small children for whom I must find nearly-nonexistent childcare; I do not have to supervise homeschooling. I do not have to endanger myself by working in public venue, constantly at risk of viral exposure. I venture out only on the most necessary of trips for groceries or medicine—or, recently, for the materials to sew masks for my family members. Retirement assures me that I do not have to puzzle out how to complete my daily work from home,  fulfilling assignments without coworker or supervisor input. Instead, I’ve been filling my days, or trying to, by spring cleaning and catching up on chores too long neglected.

But, despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty. Never  one to watch much TV, Netflix is just a pipe-dream for me anyway, since my internet provider severely limits my data streaming.  And so I read—books, news sites, magazines, other blogs and personal essays ad nauseam. I had never realized, would never have believed, that I could grow weary of reading. More importantly, though, since I live alone, the days have begun to feel torturously like solitary confinement. The only human voices I hear beyond those on videos are caught from people in the street as they walk for exercise, passing by my windows. I find myself quite literally aching—a genuine, physical ache, a hurt–for the touch of a human hand. I imagine with longing just a pat on the shoulder, a touch in passing, a hug. Families trapped in the confinement of their homes with one another hour after hour, day after day, would probably sell their souls, and cheaply at that, for a half-hour of alone time; I would gladly give a pint of blood and my right arm just to rest my head on another’s shoulder; to be wrapped in someone’s arms.

I call to check on others whom I know to be alone,  while waiting vainly for phone calls from acquaintances, desperate for conversation. Video calls, like Netflix, are a pipe dream, also; the cell phone provider which I can afford is just as ungenerous with data allowances as my internet company. And so I shiver to discover that I am holding full-blown discussions out loud with myself. My cats look on as if I’ve gone mad—who the devil is Mom talking to? But they glory in the fact that they’ve never been petted so much in their lives.

I pelt friends and family with too many texts and emails, again often waiting vainly for replies; most of them, after all, have other people in their homes with whom to hold face-to-face conversations. When they do connect with me, they tell me of irritations and disagreements and quarrels brought on by too much togetherness, and, envying them, I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.

Introverted and inadvertently solitary for much of my life, I plumbed the depths of loneliness for years, suffering  friendlessness and bitter solitude.  But I have never endured so piercing an aloneness as this I’ve experienced during lockdown. Stealing out for a legally-permissible few hours to provide necessary childcare for my granddaughter was like encountering a wellspring of rising joy that rushed torrentially upward,  then cascaded down in sparkling droplets upon my soul. As I clasped her small body close to mine, all the while praying to any available deity that I was not bringing her danger along with my love, I felt as if I had been re-humanized.

We—all of us who survive this plague, that is—will somehow get through these days and hours of social isolation, eventually returning to some form of normality. But for all of us, I hope, our eyes will have been opened, and we will never again take for granted so much of the simple fabric of daily life.

The Wrong Road

§  “…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken  §

Hmmm. Well, I didn’t take the road less traveled by. I took the one with a traffic jam.

I went to an afternoon party at a friend’s home (oh, heavens—now the first stanza of Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” is going to be an earworm, running in my brain for hours!) No, I went not to a garden party but to a girls’ afternoon out–a tea party, followed by a movie. It was a friendly and delightful excursion; one of those lovely afternoons which make me ever so glad that I lived long enough to retire and therefore enjoy such innocent pastimes. It was a brilliant afternoon, too—soft and warm, with just the tiniest chill in the air hinting at the beginning of fall, while sunshine still sparkled.

Now, as happens all too often in Indiana, I couldn’t drive my accustomed route to my friend’s home, since most of the roads around her neighborhood were under repair. (As we who live here often joke, the barrier horse is the Indiana state animal!) But I was prepared for this situation, knowing that half the roads in the city had been under construction during the summer. So I found an alternate route, arriving at her home without any problem.

However, after the movie concluded and I had made my goodbyes, I realized that I was leaving right in the middle of rush hour. Again, not a problem. Although driving an unfamiliar route in heavy traffic can, and sometimes does, spark one of my anxiety attacks, in this instance I had nowhere to be at any particular time. I could saunter along toward home without hurrying, driving defensively. If worse came to worst, I decided, I’d just pull over at one of the stores along the way and shop for a bit until the traffic thinned.

As I approached one intersection, though, I had a choice to make: turn left, and continue the quicker route down the busy highway until reaching the cross street I needed, or saunter straight ahead for a distance down a road that crossed a lovely area called Banta Woods. The Banta Woods neighborhood had once had been a minature, heavily forested woodland. When housing was later constructed on the parcel of land, the building company saved and incorporated into the landscape dozens of the tall, old trees, as many as possible. Banta Road was was usually a very pretty drive, with sunlight dappling the pavement through the nodding leaves of the trees.

I chose woodland over highway.

It was possibly not one of my brighter decisions.

With so many of the east/west roads under construction and detoured, Banta was one of the few streets still available to the rush hour traffic. Within just a few seconds, all traffic had come to a virtual standstill.

I started to fume. Wasted time, wasted gas… But then, amazing even myself, I recalled the reason why I had decided to cruise down Banta Road in the first place. I reminded myself that I had no need to hurry. Lifting my eyes, I began to admire the lovely foliage: leaves shining under the soft afternoon sunlight, some just beginning to show a hint of fall color. I admired the landscaping of the yards surrounding the large, lovely homes of this luxurious housing edition. When the line of cars ground to a complete halt, I shifted the car into park and took a few moments to safely text my daughter. I watched as cars ahead of me whipped into neighborhood cross streets, their drivers’ faces set in grim lines as they made U-turns and charged back the way they’d come, thereby allowing the rest of us to slide ahead a few car lengths.

Eventually, finally, I came to the end of Banta Road and turned left onto the wide avenue that would take me to the cross street I needed. But what could have been an exercise in frustration had, instead, been almost a meditation. I arrived at the busy avenue refreshed and relaxed, and wended my way home.

I am still astonished at how a simple change of attitude turned a frustrating and irritating circumstance into a pleasant afternoon’s drive.

I did not take the road less traveled; I took the one with the traffic jam. And it did, indeed, make all the difference.

Reading the Comments

§   Despite knowing that reading the comments probably isn’t wise, I still get sucked into doing it. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination.   §

I’ve been reading the comments at the end of news stories again.

This is never a good idea. Never, ever. Not under any circumstances.

Despite knowing this fact, I still get sucked into doing it occasionally. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination as I scroll through viciousness, ignorance, name-calling, uncivility, brutality and bullying. I read words smacking of Nazism and Fascism, and retch to see politics dragged into even the most innocuous stories. (A kitten rescued from a drainpipe? Someone will sling “libs” and “cons” into the comments, or blame Presidents present and past.) And despite the fact that I am aware that much of this trolling is done by paid performers–more on that in a moment–it shocks and terrifies me.

[As an addendum to that “paid trolls” remark: A few years and one President back, I read the comments at the end of a review for one of the never-ending Star Wars series of movies. A commenter who had apparently not liked the movie ended his remarks with a bitter, “Thanks, Obama”. My reaction was, at first, “Huh?! Say what? Excuse me?!” Then I realized that the commenter probably hadn’t finished his weekly quota of anti-President Obama remarks and was in danger of not getting paid. I really do wonder, sometimes, if the money is good enough that I should look into becoming a paid troll.]

Trolls aside, though, the level of sheer, vile nastiness in the news comments inevitably leaves me gasping in disbelief. Then I find I must give myself a stern talking-to regarding my own naivete. I realize that my generation, as well as my middle-class upbringing, has led me to hold certain unrealistic expectations regarding manners and civility. As a child, I was taught to address adults as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. (Ms. was not yet a glimmer on a feminist horizon), or as Sir or Ma’am. I might despise the individual whom I was addressing with a depth of coldness unknown even to Dante’s hell, but I had to be polite. As I grew to adulthood, courteous behavior extended to those with whom I had political disagreements. I might debate with them, ignore them, avoid them, or, in the depth of extremity, roll my eyes and walk away—but, overall, I had to be polite. Conservative or Liberal, Democrat and Republican, were points of view, nothing more; they did not define someone as a person any more than did being Roman Catholic or Buddhist.

My choice was usually, whenever possible, to avoid those with whom I had no common ground. When contact was unavoidable, or when faced with a comment so utterly outrageous that I found myself nearly choking, I preferred to stand my ground by saying calmly, “I do not agree” and walking away. If pressed further, I would firmly refuse to discuss the matter, falling back on worn but useful phrases: “This is neither the time nor the place”; “We must agree to disagree”; or the straightforward truth: “My mind is made up on this matter, and I refuse to debate it with you.” Once I was even heard to say, “I simply don’t like you well enough to continue this discussion.” That was as near to being rude as I, brought up to be civil, allowed myself.

But the anonymity of the internet has erased the requirement for civility, and that viciousness has extended into real-time, everyday interactions. Perhaps the number of road rage incidents were the first breach in the bulwark of civility; now the madness extends to every moment of life. Hearing details of parking lot quarrels that end in fatal shootings evinces little more than a sigh from the news audience, while spiteful, malicious political commercials are an accepted part of the barrage leading up to elections.

I sometimes contemplate a terrifying idea: What might happen if it was possible for the words written by commenters at the end of news stories to cause physical harm? There would be a bloodbath each newsday! As I envision that possibility, I am forced to wonder if it might not prove be a profound solution to the problem of uncivility in today’s society. After all, if Darwinian theory is to be believed, races evolve when those best suited to survive reproduce. And so I picture those of us who choose civility standing back, hands covering our eyes and faces turned aside from the horrifying carnage, as all the mannerless, bullying, cruel individuals destroy one another via their brutal comments and remarks. Then perhaps we survivors—broken-hearted but courteously and with compassion–could respectfully bury the dead, pick up the pieces, and establish rational debate as a measure of civil society once more.