To Lucinda, Whoever You Were

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What I know of you for certain is only what’s recorded on your tombstone
and two grainy old photographs. Certainly, you were once a girl. A wife.
A mother. You were a survivor of interesting times. Of Huguenot stock.
You knew duty. Did you know love? Did you know peace?
You were the family nurse, then a widow, a “Relict”, they said for decades.
The custom then, it sounds harsh today: Relict. But do we judge you unfairly?

You were a hard woman for hard times and kept a Bible cocked and loaded.
You weren’t afraid to use it. It was your preferred weapon.
Two of five children quickly fled when they could. A darling little girl
died as an infant. How you mourned. A son went insane, locked up forever.
One last daughter, a constant companion to the end, disappeared
without a trace. Are there really two people in your grave?

Your grudges piled up, un-dismissed for a lifetime. Cloying sweetness
masked failed manipulation. Did you feel unloved?
I think you were loved in spite of yourself. Your son fled to
marry an Irish “Papist” …oh the tears…oh the horror!
With hope in his heart, he gave his daughter your name: Lucinda:

— Illumination —

and she lived up to the name in ways you could never comprehend.

    *     *     *

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Wanderlust

I don’t travel as much now as I used to. I seem content to go back to places that I’ve visited before rather than to strike out in a new direction. That seemed to be okay for now — as I am almost through my seventh decade — but I need to re-think that just a little.

My mother  did not travel much. Living and working  in St. Louis, she was pretty far from the wonders of the world. She went with a neighbor family to see Pikes Peak in an shiny new touring car sometime in the 1920s — crossing Kansas on what passed for roads and camping along the way. She and a bunch of girlfriends drove to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast in the 1930s. (Whoa– how daring!) She wasn’t a driver so she rode in the rumble seat and got sunburned.  I only know that because she kept a little travel journal complete with grainy Kodak photographs. We travelled on family vacations beginning in the late 1950s and when she and my dad moved to Virginia in the 1970s they travelled around the east coast. On her first airplane trip, out to California to visit her brother and sister-in-law, she visited an old Spanish mission and pried up an original clay floor tile and brought it home as a souvenir. Maybe it’s good that she didn’t travel to some places. Is that really the Holy Grail in the pantry?

richard_halliburtonBut I get some of my “wanderlust” from her. She was a big fan of Richard Halliburton, an almost unknown name today but at the time, back in the 1930s,  he was almost a rival to Charles Lindbergh. He was a dashing and fearless figure who travelled the world over and published stories and books of his travels. She scraped money together to buy his books and when he came to town she was in the audience. She went to see Lindbergh, too, but she seemed to be more impressed with Halliburton. He was almost a roaming evangelist for travelers…good looking and articulate — and single. He managed to turn travel into a career and made good money at it. His personal life was a little edgy by her standards, had she known, but back in the day much of that was kept private.

As I was recently going through some family books, I came across her old 1937 copy of Halliburton’s Book of Marvels: The Occident, which covers many of his travels and adventures in North and South America and Europe. I remember poring over that book as a kid and wanting to go see all of those places that were pictured. Looking through it now, especially the old black and white pictures,  I wonder how much things have changed. He was writing before WW-II but made reference to the damage that was done during “the Great War”.  Hitler was  in power in 1937 and Halliburton pretty much ignored the existence of the German state except to mention the damage the Germans did in shelling Rheims Cathedral (complete with photographs of the burning church). My dad trudged all over western Europe in WW-II from London to Paris and Berlin with an eventful stopover in Bastogne and was much less impressed with the place.

As I paged through the book this time I see that I’ve managed to visit a number of places he covered in 1937. Some are pretty commonplace today. He goes gaga over the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Chapters are devoted to Boulder Dam, Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls…people still are impressed with those. New York City gets a chapter with emphasis on the Empire State Building. Washington DC gets a chapter. It turns out I’ve staggered through all the places in the US that he featured in the book with the exception of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas out in the Gulf west of Key West, Florida. I just never took the boat ride. There are a lot of places in the rest of the book that I haven’t visited. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and his pictures from the 1930s are interesting compared to what it looks like today. I’ve been maybe a couple hours away from some of the places but didn’t get there. I recall reading his account of  Vesuvius and Pompeii as a kid and even wrote a report for school based mostly on the book but I never managed to get there — just a few miles down the road from Rome.  There are a few places I’ll not visit — monasteries, mostly, but there are a number that still beckon…Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro could be one trip. Athens and Istanbul could be another trip.

richard-halliburton-elephantHalliburton was a great self-promoter and he seemed to be awestruck with almost anything he encountered along the way. His prose was gushing in praise for everything and sounds silly today. He found all sorts of people to happily pose in native costumes for his photographs but he seemed to really like being photographed riding elephants. There are a lot of those.

Undaunted by the first hostilities of WW-II, Japan and China were at war, Halliburton had a Chinese Junk, the Sea Dragon, built in Hong Kong  in 1939 and planned to sail it across the Pacific to San Francisco. How tough could it be? Halliburton and a crew of six Americans set off in March and ran headlong into a typhoon. The ship was last seen some distance west of Midway Island struggling through the storm. It was never seen again.  Initial reaction was that this was a publicity stunt — Amelia Earhart had gone missing two years earlier so nobody was dumb enough to try this without some back-up plan…right? Eventually the navy went out looking for the Sea Dragon or some evidence of wreckage but nothing was found. Halliburton was declared dead in  October, 1939. Germany had invaded Poland the previous month so there was not as much attention paid to his disappearance. My mom was probably heartbroken. Rumors persisted for years that he actually was alive and living like a native in some remote location but none of the crew ever turned up. Eventually, in 1945, some wooden wreckage washed ashore near San Diego that could have been from the Sea Dragon but, after so many years of war in the Pacific, it could have been from almost anything.  I might travel a little more but I won’t be trying that.

     *     *     *

A Chance Meeting on a Train

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The chance meetings or random coincidences always intrigue me. I’m travelling cross country by train and I‘ve met two writers already just as table-mates in the dining car. One, age nineteen, has two published books (what was I doing with my time at nineteen?). The other is a ghost writer and mostly now does short stories. The nineteen-year-old just started a university writing program so, who knows, she may never write again – or maybe be a great success. I knew her when…

I had lunch in the dining car yesterday with a lady from the island of Hawaii travelling to St. Louis, which happens to be my destination. As we talked, she shared some of her experiences of moving to Hawaii and what her immediate surroundings were like…plants and animals. There was also another lady sitting at a table across the aisle who was glancing over from time to time. It turned out that she also was also from the “Big Island” and they were, in fact, near neighbors. They lived in adjoining communities. So what are the odds of two people starting off on separate journeys from the same general place at different times and meeting in a dining car in New Mexico on an east-bound train? How many different things had to fall into place for that to happen? I suppose someone could figure out the odds with enough information but I’ve learned just to accept it.  Maybe a butterfly in Tibet flapped its wings and things fell into place. Maybe not.

My life is full of similar random coincidences that defy explanation. My late wife’s birthdate matches exactly with my brother’s wife’s birthdate…same day and year. They were born in the same state but not the same city. Also, totally unknown until later, my wife once worked for my sister-in-law’s mother when she was starting her career before I met her.

About a twenty years into my work life I was living in a small town and employed in government as a program manager. I had to hire a new secretary so I interviewed maybe a half dozen candidates. I hired a local woman from the small town and never really thought much about her background or family. In small towns one doesn’t pry into family connections unless the topic is initiated by the other person. My experience was that many people were related to each other either directly or by marriage and it was best not to express opinions or comments about someone. Now, realize that I was born and raised 150 miles away and had no prior connection to this town. That is what I thought until a chance conversation with my secretary revealed that we were both cousins to the same person. Somehow one of my cousins married her cousin and we were commonly related to their children. It was a second marriage for both of these cousins; both being divorced in different localities.

I also have two insurance agents, both living in that same small town that I moved to at age 27, and both of these agents share my birthday. One is exactly the same — day and year – and the other a few years later. They don’t know each other and work for different companies. There are other date-related coincidences: my dad died ten years, to the hour, before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. I could list almost a dozen other odd, seemingly random occurrences but you get the idea.

I was recently reading a short passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace in which he questions how things happen. Often we see things as planned and managed by a talented leader (in this case, Napoleon) but maybe that is an illusion. Maybe things are set in motion in another way. Maybe a peculiar string of random events led Napoleon to Moscow with a huge army. Maybe he was just along for the ride. We plan things and sometimes the plans work out and sometimes they don’t. “Serendipity” is one English language concept – to find something good by accident without seeking it. In history, one person’s serendipity is sometimes another person’s catastrophe. I suspect that concept is not unique to English speakers.

At any rate, things have an odd tendency to fall into place in ways that, while seemingly random, also give a hint that something else is in control. My daughter says that it is the angels at work. She got that idea from my wife who attributed certain happenings to an unseen hand…”Let it be – marvel but don’t question” was her philosophy. Maybe so. Maybe the angels are bored and play these games to keep busy.

Carl Gustave Jung, a clergyman’s son and prominent psychoanalyst, was also intrigued by these chance happenings and devised the concept of synchronicity. To his way of thinking, events do not need to have a causal relationship to have meaning — perhaps meaning eclipses cause? Out of all of these events that I’ve mentioned above, or others I haven’t described, or those others have experienced, none of them really had much of an impact. I didn’t change my behavior or plans in response to the events and it made no difference to other people whose lives intersected in the events. It is just a curiosity, sometimes with meaning to the observer, sometimes there is no meaning. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. Other than that one fact, there really isn’t anything else to say except that they both went on to change the course of history.

For a number of years, beginning in 1975, my wife and I would take a week-long vacation each year…maybe longer some years. The dates of our vacation coincided with a number of major events including the stock market crash, the death of Princess Diana, the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., the assassination of Anwar Sadat, disappearance (and death) of Jimmy Hoffa,  various plane crashes, coups  and military invasions. We would occasionally joke about the CIA or FBI wanting to track our movements — something big was going to happen if we took a vacation. We still took our vacation and we were finally able to shake off the “curse” about fifteen years ago. Nothing would happen when we went on a trip. It was sort of a let down…we didn’t have any special powers after all.

(Revised from the original posted at The Green Room, August, 2016)

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Cranberry Redemption

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     I have a confession to make. I’ve never been a fan of cranberry stuff at Thanksgiving – not sauce, relish, whatever. It seemed like some sort of Holy obligation — I had to eat some because of the sacred tradition.  My mom always opened a can and dumped it on a plate like some sort of  gelatinous cylinder…festive, flavorful, and to me, kind of industrial looking. It would be passed around the table like communion and folks would take a spoonful and deposit it on the side of their plate but not let it touch any of the other food…it was something apart.
     Now there are many ways to prepare cranberries and my mom experimented with different recipes but she had her hands full with everything else. We knew that it was best to stay out of the kitchen. I recall one year when there were flames roaring out of the oven and my mom and my aunt were franticly throwing stuff in the oven to put out the turkey. Another year the turkey lurched out of the oven and bounced across the floor. She picked it up and crammed it back in the oven and the look on her face said…”I dare you to say anything…it will be the last thing you ever say.”  So the little plate with the cranberry cylinder was fine.
     The cranberry plant has an odd life. It is sort of a vine-like shrub   that lives in a sandy, wet bog in rather cold climates — a very acidic environment. The common North American version (Vaccinium Macrocarpon) is somewhat different from the European variety but I have no idea what that difference is. We have several varieties or species of cranberries that have some differences in growing requirements or berry color but Vaccinium Macrocarpon is the one that seems to be widely cultivated. The Indians loved cranberries and probably introduced them to the hungry Pilgrims. I suspect you have seen the commercials with the two guys standing hip deep in a pond extolling the wonders of cranberries. The berries float so the farmers flood the bogs with enough water to float the berries above the submerged plants and then harvest the floating berries. The bogs are then drained after the harvest and the plants get ready for next Thanksgiving.
     As I said, I’m not a fan of Thanksgiving cranberry stuff. I generally like the flavor of cranberry juice and I like dried cranberries. There are lots of cranberry relish recipes all over the internet. The recipes seem almost like a desperate attempt to make something out of cranberries. Some have nuts, some have a mixture of other fruit, some have lemon peel, some attempt to replicate the same stuff that comes out of the can. None of the pictures look like anything I would want to eat much of. A chopped up cranberry mixed with other things that I can’t identify is not very inviting. My mom’s experiments with real cranberries didn’t seem to be an improvement over the convenience of opening a can while the smoke poured out of the oven.
     My days of big Thanksgiving dinners are behind me. I live 1,000 miles from most of my relatives so it is just me and my daughter  — who lives a short distance away —  conjuring up some sort of plan for the holiday. Neither one of us want a great deal of leftovers so we keep it small. This year we decided to forego cooking all together and made reservations at a local restaurant for the whole parade of traditional Thanksgiving  delicacies…including cranberry relish. Even in this situation, the cranberry concoction was served up in it’s own little Holy sepulcher …not part of the main attraction.  It was of the chopped or minced variety…not the semi-transparent gelatinous form. I pondered it for a minute or so. My plate was full of turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing (all drenched with turkey gravy) and green beans and candied sweet potatoes plus a basket of warm bread. That little dish of red stuff peered back at me…”Try me” it said, almost winking.  This seemed like too public a place to partake of the cranberry sacrament. Well…nobody was looking…I made a run for it and discreetly took a sample….and behold(!), I saw that it was good!  I tried some more…I was not deceived. It was quite good…very good.  It was clearly some sort of marriage of cranberry and orange marmalade.  Maybe I’ve been deprived all these years but I never considered those two flavors working well together. We enjoyed our dinner. My daughter also enjoyed the cranberries which I considered a good sign….it wasn’t just me. Perhaps the spell has been broken — we have reached cranberry redemption!  Shout Hallelujah!!!
     *     *     *

The Poplar Tree

It’s a windy day, blue and sunny.

I have a head cold and sit in the sun

hoping to bake it out of my skull.

The sun tries its best with warming rays.

But the wind intervenes. It’s October.

The warm days of summer are behind me

and I pull on a sweater.

 

I can still feel the heat of the sun even

with the autumn wind.

Almost dozing, I surrender to the present…

the sun, the wind, the sounds, and the smells…

I have a chicken boiling in the pot. Soup is in my future.

I see the treetops swaying in the wind.

That takes me back to other windy days.

 

Years, a lifetime,  ago there was a singular

Poplar tree on the edge of a forgotten cornfield;

abandoned with old stubble and rabbit tracks,

and sometimes snakes when the weather was right.

That tree – not an old rigid tree – was

almost thirty feet tall and straight and strong

but still flexed nimbly in the wind.

 

The Poplar came equipped with low branches

perfect for an eight-year-old to climb.

An Adventurer, a Sailor, a Flying Wallenda!

It could be anything but on windy days

it was a Pirate ship and I was up in the rigging

swaying back and forth as the ship bounded

through the waves.

 

Squinting toward the horizon,

I search for unsuspecting Galleons full of treasure;

full of spices, gold, jewels and who knows what else.

Maybe even a damsel or two?

Yo-Ho and Ahoy!! Avast me hearties!!

Hold fast and turn her about! What do I spy?

It’s my mother – the chicken soup is ready.

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Reflecting on my Aunt Vivian

This is Mother’s Day, not Aunt’s Day…but I decided to take a minute or two to reflect on my mom’s sister, Vivian, who had no children of her own but was part owner of all of her nieces and nephews. We all owe her a nod of remembrance now and then because she was a big part of our lives.

When she passed away at the age of 85 several of the nieces and nephews came together to help clean out her house…a formidable task since this was the family homestead, such as it was. Aunt Vivian was an artist and many of the prize possessions that we took home with us on that day were some of her paintings and a few other family heirlooms. I, being sort of the unofficial family historian, also took some of her papers and a few old and faded cards and letters that she felt a need to keep these many years.

One of the items I found later in her papers was a quotation that she took great pains to copy out in her own distinctive artist’s block printing that we all recognized as her handwriting. This quotation clearly established her philosophy and her self-proclaimed mission in life regarding her nieces and nephews. The quotation is the best way of describing who she was:

There was usually, somewhere a now almost forgotten maiden aunt who furnished the extra ammunition needed for winning the decisive battle on some early day in an obscure, eager, young person’s life…. The good aunt always gives to nieces and nephews the something extra, the something unexpected, the something which comes from outside the limits of their habitual world… She is the joker in the pack of cards which, placed here or placed there, can change the whole aspect of the game. She belongs to to nobody and to everybody. She belongs now to one child, now to another and the one whose turn it is to draw her wins. This is the kind of aunt I rather hoped that I might be. I wanted to join the long line of the famous aunts of history: those individuals, sparkling and free, who left such treasures behind them — Jane Austen, Kate Greenaway, Louisa Alcott, Emily Dickenson, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Chief of our aunts — and Samuel Butler’s Aunt Pontifex in the Way of All Flesh — aunts whose excellence in the role of aunthood is so richly shown in their lives and letters.        

         by Katherine Butler Hathaway

 

I scanned her hand-written version:

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So here’s to Aunt Viv — may she live long in our memories.

Footnote:  My Aunt was a person of many talents besides being an artist. One of these was dressmaking and she owned her own dressmaking shop and designed dresses for her customers. She was also the wardrobe mistress for the Goldenrod Showboat that was moored at the Mississippi River levee in St. Louis. She made and altered the actors’ costumes and worked on scenery. Bob Hope and Red Skelton were among the actors on the Goldenrod during the early years. The Goldenrod was the inspiration for Edna Ferber’s book and the later Broadway musical  Show Boat. She was also a member of The Mummers, a theatrical group in St. Louis that included Tennessee Williams. The Mummers were the first to perform some of his plays. In spite of his later fame, my Aunt’s opinion of Tennessee Williams was not very complementary.

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A Selfie, c. 1940s

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Today is Star Wars Day and tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo and sandwiched in between, from sunset to sunset, is Holocaust Remembrance Day. We are an odd bunch. We commemorate those who sacrificed their lives in war and, as if that isn’t enough, we invent make-believe wars and then commemorate them as well. And then we do it all over again — It must all be a genetic trait.

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Ireland 3000 BC

We really don’t need to make up war stories or invent enemies or heros. We have plenty to go around. There is very little of our scarred and sodden planet that is not sprinkled with blood.

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Sarajevo

We have always been fond of building earth and stone monuments to our dead heros or the fallen martyrs. War and battlefields bring out the builder in us. That helps us remember what we were — or what “they” were.

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Vietnam Memorial

What happens when we run out of stone to build memorials? Will we put an end to the warfare? We have accepted the industrialization of killing as part of our being. That’s what we do even though we say “Never Again”.

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Holocaust – Berlin

We are nothing if not a resourceful kind of being. Look how far we’ve come. We used to throw rocks and sticks. We have come so far — now we can incinerate cities or surgically remove unwanted foes anonymously. Two million here, six million there….the shear numbers render it all impersonal and anonymous. No one person can be responsible. But then we go back to the earth and stone and build a memorial.

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Cambodia

Sometimes we build war memorials and then tip-toe around them while we fight more wars generations later in the same place.  It doesn’t seem to matter. Why do we even bother? We turn a blind eye to the past and stumble forward and do it all again.  People blame this on religion or ideology or racism but it has to be some sort of genetic flaw.

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Battle of Waterloo