The Other I

September 4, 2017

My Dorothy Day childhood

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:50 pm

To explain why, at the age of six, I decided I wanted to live in New York, I think I need to begin with my mother.

Like my Dad, Mom was a second generation immigrant.  Her family emigrated from Warsaw, Poland,  she was bi-lingual, had three older brothers, earned a BA, and was very attractive.  Unlike Dad, she accepted Roman Catholic beliefs  with unquestioning peace.  Also unlike Dad, she did not possess the incisive analytical intelligence which made him such a successful lawyer, and which is by and large still thought of as an indicator of a high IQ.  That is how I grew up believing that girls could never be as smart as boys, and why, until my older brother demolished my plan, I planned to be a man when I grew up.

Today cognitive psychologists understand that intelligence is much more complex than the verbal, spatial, and mathematical skills measured in traditional IQ tests.  Howard Gardener of Harvard University identifies 9 independent kinds of intelligence  including interpersonal intelligence, or empathy, which is the ability to  understand the feelings and motives of others, even when it is different from what one is experiencing oneself.

In retrospect,  I think my mother was on the genius level in terms of interpersonal intelligence.  But as a child, I just thought it was what one would expect of a mother.  I didn’t realize it was smarts, that it was an immensely valuable contribution to holding the family together.  She moved with Dad to the farm because she was a loving, committed wife.  But Dad wasn’t a farmer.  He was a lawyer and didn’t live his dream on the farm seven days a week.  He went off to the city five and a half days, and really worked the farm on Sunday afternoons as a recreational escape.  Mom, though, lived on the farm seven days a week.    She never complained, but she was very sociable and liked having people around.   She was lonely on the farm.  We did have a telephone, but obviously no internet or TV.  We didn’t even have a radio in the first years.  Although she always made people welcome, we lived on that house on the hill.  She was not, in that sense, a part of a village, or a community.

I didn’t want to be like my mother.  I thought she belonged in second place.  When I was told I looked like her, I was insulted.  I wanted to look like my Dad.  But as I look back now, I realize I shared her loneliness.  I had four brothers by the time I was six, but no sisters.  And when I finally got a sister, I remember being appalled that she was just a baby!  She wasn’t going to be any good as a playmate.  I couldn’t wait to start school, and when I did,  I loved it.  I got good grades and the only C I ever remember getting in my life was for penmanship, of which I was very proud, because I thought Dad’s writing was almost illegible too.

I would like to believe now that I also inherited some of my mother’s social intelligence.  Coming from my father’s side of the family, however, we have a streak of Asperger’s syndrome – the exact opposite of social intelligence – and I do not know how empathetic I might be.  I do know that I am a city person, that I find even village life too isolating.

In any case, I know now that it was not just my father, but equally my mother, who made my childhood so enriching.  She was a wonderful, loving teacher.  She was not competitive with us.  She did not, for instance, need to demonstrate that she was a better seamstress or cook or card player with us.  She enjoyed her children, she was proud of us, and encouraged us to be our unique selves.

I think I inherited my particular capacity for loneliness from her.

And that is why, by the time I was six, I’d made up my mind that I was going to move to New York.

That’s my personal story.  I also think, though, that our idyllic life on the farm had some long-term limitations for all of us.  We paid a price for living in that idyll.  About which, more on my next post.

Stow, OH: Wyoga lake at sunrise

Picture by Eric Upton;;  Stow, OH: Wyoga lake at sunrise


August 15, 2017

My Dad

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:57 pm

Recently a friend said she would be interested in hearing more about my parents.  I realized she was right, and that I’d written a lot about my Family and Growing Up, but not very much about my parents’ own childhoods.  So I am writing a few posts now about them.

My Dad was a second generation immigrant from Bavaria, Germany on his father’s side.  In Bavaria, my grandfather had been chosen by his family to be a priest and sent to a seminary with all the constraints and opportunities that life offered.  My grandfather didn’t like the option and applied to study “as a seminarian” in the United States.  The seminary in Germany agreed and sent him for further study to America.  Upon reaching America, however, he went to a town in Wisconsin where many of his fellow-countrymen had already immigrated and were making a living either as farmers or as practicing lawyers.

He never began his studies as a seminarian.  He was a gifted musician and began to make a living playing the organ in churches, movies houses, and other recreational areas.  He met my grandmother and when they were married began a life that was frequently on the move, not infrequently flitting town at night leaving their debts behind.

My father was their oldest child, and he quickly developed a sense of responsibility for his parents and his younger brother and sister.  By the age of eleven, he was selling newspapers on the street to bring home enough money to feed the family that night.  He attended a Catholic high school where he developed a close friendship with the man who was later to become “Father Basil,” who visited our home and ate supper with us every Saturday for more than 20 years until my own mother’s death.

After high school my father attended John Carrol University, a Jesuit college in Ohio, and then earned a scholarship to study law at Harvard University.  He supplemented his scholarship by playing the guitar, which he later gave to me, and which I left behind when I left the convent at the age of 27.  He also finished Harvard’s 4-year degree in 3 years, graduating with honors.

Dad then returned to Akron, Ohio where his family was living and began his law practice in the 1930’s.  Despite the Great Depression, he somehow managed to pay to put his younger sister through college.  He married my mother in 1937, their first child was born in 1939, and I followed a year later.

In 1941, in the middle of World War II, my parents bought 70 acres of land from Ohio State.  It had never been owned by immigrants before, included a huge swamp, and not much else.  Inspired by Dorothy Day who was convinced that farm life was the most wholesome life style children could possible be given, my father and mother set up the home where I grew up.

More about our Dorothy Day farm in my next post.

August 28, 2016

Silent thoughts

Filed under: Family — theotheri @ 3:19 pm

You may not have noticed, but I’ve not blogged very often in recent months.  I’ve missed the sharing, especially with some readers whom I have come to feel are friends, even though we’ve never met.

I’m the oldest sister in my family and several of my younger sibs are facing serious illness.  But unlike our growing-up years, I don’t have a store of right answers and suggestions.  It is now they who are finding the wisdom.

I suspect my relative silence may continue for a while, because sharing the thoughts which are swirling around my head almost 24/7 may compromise the privacy of those who deserve it, and so it is not time yet for me to think out loud as I usually do in this forum.

I do hope to be able to dig up some trivia to share occasionally, if only to keep myself going.  Perhaps a few Trump stories?


March 8, 2016

A story for Women’s Day

When I was ten years old, my mother had twins – a boy named Bob and a girl, Mary.  Within a year, my brother Tom and I had assumed the responsibility of socializing them, teaching them essential tasks such as learning to walk, to button one’s shirt, and critically, the highly abstract and complex task of learning to tie their shoe laces.

To fully understand the implications of the story I am about to tell, it is necessary to understand that the subtle indoctrination of Roman Catholicism in our family included the indisputable truth that men are more intelligent than women.  Bob, therefore, had to learn to tie his shoes before his sister Mary, or suffer the humiliation of sexual failure at the mature age of two.

So Tom set about teaching Bob to tie his shoe laces, and I took over the job of tutoring Mary.

Mary learned to tie her shoe laces first.

But when I told this momentous fact to Tom, and he asked Mary to prove it, she pretended that she couldn’t do it.

In fact, she refused to admit that she knew how to tie her laces until Bob had learned and demonstrated his achievement first.

My temptation is to say that this illustrates that girls really are smarter than boys, or that I was a better teacher than my brother, but of course it doesn’t.

But do you think that sometimes girls are just kinder than our counterparts?  I can’t ask Mary what she thinks because she died of cancer 20 years ago.

But that’s my hypothesis.  I think even at the age of two, there was no way she was going to play a game of one-up-man-ship  with her dear twin brother.

I Can Tie My Own Shoes (I Can Books) by Ltd. Top That Publishing





August 25, 2015

Eyes like big sunshine…

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:06 pm

Maybe it’s the oldest sister in me, but I think this you-tube is just fantastic.  I love it!

March 17, 2015

An environmentally friendly concoction?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:53 pm
This is a photo taken by a real estate agent here in England, presumably to actually find a buyer for the house where this ingenious installation was accomplished.
Optimisation of space taken to the extreme
I will admit to a certain admiration for the person who figured out all that clever piping to save water and space.  Well, I guess that’s what they were trying to do:  I’ve been trying to figure out what happens to the excess grey water from the machine when the cistern is full.  Or how the toilet flushes when the cistern is empty.
And sitting on a toilet underneath a 500 lb washing machine seems a rather high price to pay for recycling, doesn’t it?
I come from a family of engineers, some of whom have tried out some ideas that I think could legitimately be categorized as wacky.  But I am extremely grateful that the none of the engineers I know and love have ever tried to replace the picture above with toilet with a washing machine.

November 6, 2014

The socialization of oldest sisters and Catholic priests

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:43 pm





In the supermarket this morning, I watched a little girl, probably about five, showing her little sister, about age three, how to push a shopping trolley for groceries.  The youngest was clearly immensely pleased and very proud to be given instructions for carrying out such a grown-up activity.  The older sister was very kind and patient.  And definitely in charge.  It was like watching myself in a time-lapse episode.

Photo from Kid Costs || Child Support Budgets

By the time I was a year and a half old, I had a younger sibling.  By the time I was thirteen, I had four younger sisters, four younger brothers, and a great deal of authority countenanced by my parents.  By the time I was a teenager, “Terry said I could do it” held as much justification for my younger sibs as permission received directly from Mom or Dad.  I took them swimming.  I took them shopping.  I helped them with their homework.  They sat on the kitchen cupboard and “helped me” make cookies, which meant they got to lick the spoon and anything left in the bowl.

I’ve often thought of the effect this subtle but constant socialization as the oldest sister has had on my psyche.  I was the oldest.  Whether I was intrinsically the smartest might be questionable, but I was always the most experienced, always the biggest.  I didn’t ask my sibs for advice.  I figured things out for myself.  I always knew better.  And I didn’t just know it.  All my brothers and sisters knew it.  They would no more say to me “Don’t tell me what to do” than they would have said it to either of our parents.

I have, as we all moved into adulthood, relinquished my absolute sense that I always know best.  I sometimes do ask various brothers and sisters for their opinions and advice in areas where their expertise greatly out-ranks mine and take them seriously.  I’ve learned a lot from them.

But I realized some time ago just how much of an oldest sister I still am.  I got caught in the middle of a conversation with two men squabbling with each other, and I spontaneously more or less scolded them and told them to stop.  The wife of one of the men looked at me and said “You sound just like Father Patrick!”

I have since been reflecting on how much like a Catholic priest I am capable of being.  I assume an authority based on years of living in a world where my word was never questioned, was always accepted as right, where my authority was never resented but rather accepted as a sign of my concern.  And like most Catholic priests I have known, however kind and wise many of them have been, I don’t expect to be told what to do or what to think.  Discussion, yes.  Dictation, no.

Rather like the girl in the supermarket who by the age of five was already “the oldest.”


June 3, 2014

Anybody you recognize?

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 3:56 pm

My father was the son of first and third generation German immigrants.  In America they made their living as lawyers, musicians, farmers, and engineers.  The inheritance is evident among my 5 brothers and 4 sisters.

Two days ago, my lawyer-brother sent the family an engineer test, with the question:  “Does anyone recognize anyone in our family?”  The gasp of recognition was heard throughout cyberspace.

Since then we have been exchanging stories all suggesting that the incipient characteristics of the engineer were evident from an early age.

I remember –  I’m probably the only living person who does — that when I was about three years old, my oldest brother, who was four at the time,  decided I needed a cross on my doll house.   He didn’t discuss it with me, but I went out one day and there was this big ugly thing nailed onto the roof of my lovely little house.  We all had crucifixes over our beds, and there was Tom deciding that my dolls needed one too.  Actually, I doubt he was making an attempt to rescue my dolls from the clutches of paganism.  He just decided to try out his incipient skills as a construction engineer.  It was terrible and I remember asking Mom for her scissors so I could cut it down.  The adults in my life thought that was hilarious.  My sister – who wasn’t around at the time – says she is sure it wasn’t supposed to be a cross at all but a lightning rod.

I have another engineering brother who at about the age of six thought that taking off one’s clothes to go to bed at night was a total waste of time, when you simply had to put them all back on again in the morning.  So he developed a masterful time-saving plan:  put one’s pajamas on over one’s clothes.  When Dad found out, he called him to “come here immediately” in a scary authoritative voice of judgement he could use, so there wasn’t time to do anything but appear in full regalia.  What those of us who witnessed the confrontation knew was that Dad was laughing so hard he could barely hold it together.  Personally, I think that brother showed the ingenuity of a budding engineer.

Even my husband Peter (who grew up in a coal-mining village during WWII in England) could not believe the outfit Dad put on to “work on the farm.”  It was the outfit his second wife forbid him to wear above the basement level.

Which demonstrates why we are all unanimous in our gratitude to the partners of the engineers in our family for supplementing the lacunae in their undoubted skills.

If you know any engineers, I’d love to know if you recognize any of the hall marks too.   Double click on the test for engineers for the full authentic list.


May 17, 2013

Enough already!

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:52 am

When I was a very grown-up age of twelve, my mother told me she was pregnant with her tenth child.

I was furious and told her so in no uncertain terms:  “You have enough children!”

I didn’t understand it then, but  I was really saying that I didn’t want to be a surrogate mother to a baby about whose arrival I had not even been consulted.  Of course, in my adolescent wisdom, I had no idea just how much I myself was gaining from being an older sister who, however great my ignorance may have been on any subject, was always less than those of my younger, lesser experienced siblings.  So I grew up with a self-confidence that was perhaps not always due solely to my superior abilities.

My mother did have her tenth child, of course, and though I at first refused to so much as change a diaper without sulking, I eventually discovered that I have a great deal in common with my youngest sister.  And among other things, we are agreed today that if one is going to be a member of a large family, being at the top or the bottom of the array is almost always less of a challenge than fighting for a separate identity as a squashed in-between.

So I am now most grateful that my mother did have her tenth child and that she is now my grown-up sister.

Thanks, Mom.  She really is a gift.  Just like you said.

Besides that, she’s arriving from America today for a ten-day visit.  So I’m taking a break from blogging.


May 15, 2013

Ignoring the question

When I was about ten years old, my brother Jack came home from first grade one afternoon, and told my mother that he had some homework.  It was, he said, to learn the first five questions of the catechism.

I’m sure by then my mother knew the first five questions by heart – Q:  “Who made you?”   A:  “God made me.”  Q:  “Who is God?”  A:  God is the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving…” etc.  But she nonetheless sat down with Jack, opened his catechism and asked him:  “Who made you?”  “Who made you?” repeated Jack.  “That’s right,” my mother replied, “who made you?  What is the answer?”

“Oh, we don’t have to learn the answers,” Jack said.  “We just have to learn the questions.”

At the mature age of ten years, I thought this was so very funny.

But now I think how right this little brother of mine was.  As Roman Catholics, we belonged to the One and Only True Church, which in addition had just a century earlier infallibly declared itself infallible.  We had no need of questions;  we already had the answers.

And yet the questions are profound:  where did we come from?  why are we here?  where are we going?  Oh, those questions are worth learning.  They are worth a lifetime of pondering.

What a terrible loss to learn to skip over them before we had barely reached the age of reason.

Jack was right:  we have to learn the questions.

February 3, 2013

My big sister syndrome

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:13 pm

I was never really a child.  By the age of 20 months I already had a younger brother, and by the time I was twelve years old, I had eight younger brothers and sisters.

So I grew up always knowing more than almost everybody else.  I learned how to do things first and then taught them.  I was given responsibilities for looking after them, and my authority was almost equal to that of my parents.  As a result, I grew up with a sense of confidence and independence that is so deeply-rooted that it almost feels genetic.  But it isn’t genetic.  It’s learned from having thousands of right answers, from years of being in charge, from knowing better or at least thinking that I knew better for the first two decades of my life.

Lucy 1
Lucy 2

As my younger sibs became adults, they began to tease me about always knowing best and gave me the honorary title of Lucy.

I hope I have modified my tendency toward telling everybody else what to do all the time.  But I am still an older sister.  I don’t expect to be given advice I don’t ask for and don’t take kindly to its being given.  I do ask for people’s opinions, but I don’t expect them to make decisions for me.

I’ve recognized these things about myself for many years.  But I have only just realized that all the women with whom I have been friends for any enduring length of time are themselves also oldest sisters.  I can’t believe this pattern is a complete coincidence.  I sense in other oldest sisters the same self-rootedness I learned growing up.  I find it liberating and supportive at the same time.  This independence in others frees me of a kind of responsibility for them that, unasked, I often spontaneously assume in relation to others.



October 28, 2012


Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:10 pm

A friend who read my post exploring the possibility that my list of ancestors might include the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, sent me the following story.

Judy Walkman, a professional genealogy researcher in southern California , was doing some personal work on her own family tree. She discovered that Senator Harry Reid’s great-great uncle, Remus Reid, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889. Both Judy and Harry Reid share this common ancestor
On the back of the picture Judy obtained during her research is this inscription:  “Remus Reid, horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times.  Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889.’
So Judy recently e-mailed Senator Harry Reid for  information about their great-great uncle.  Believe it or not, Harry Reid’s staff sent back the following biographical sketch for her genealogy research:
“Remus Reid was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad.
Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”
I’m not sure I should try to spin my alleged forebear and his Walk to Canossa.   According to Snopes, Al Gore, Joe Biden, Ted Stevens, George Bush Jr., and Hilary Clinton are all alleged to have identical thieves apprehended by Pinkerton and hanged in equally tragic circumstances.  Who knows how many reluctant penitents arrived in Canossa?
But it is a funny story anyway.

October 26, 2012

The view from above

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 12:28 pm
Tags: , ,

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV doing penance to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII.  Illustration for Storia d'Italia by Paolo Giudici (Nerbini, 1930).My brother who has explored our German genealogy thinks that we may be descendants of  Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1084-1105.   I wasn’t taught the political version in the history course taught to ten-year-olds, but the excommunication game was obviously political. Henry is the king who out-maneuvered Pope Gregory VII by engaging in public penance, forcing the pope  to reverse his excommunication of Henry for having questioned Gregory’s divinely authorized authority.

Henry would be an ancestor of worthy stubbornness and political skill, though even if he is a relative, it’s a distinction that must be shared by tens of thousands of descendants by now, which does rather reduce the shine a bit.  And besides it’s qualified with a number of “seems to have been married to…” or “may be the son of…” along the way.  So the royal link is somewhat dubious.

Personally, I think it more likely that I’m related to Salem, the tree-climbing girl who lived in Ethiopia three million years ago.  Somehow I recognize in myself those genes that climbed to the top of the tree and directed forest life below from her self-elevated position.

I’m not sure, though, unlike Henry IV, how many people really paid attention to her.  She died at the age of three.



May 31, 2012

Why some children aren’t happy

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:04 pm
Tags: , ,
Peanuts by Charles Schulz

Sometimes as a child I used to go to my bedroom and cry because I wasn’t as happy as my parents hoped I would be.  They tried so hard and did so much to make me happy and I was failing them.

It was especially bad at Christmas.

Sometimes parents just can’t win

December 6, 2011

Happy Saint-a-Claus Day

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Family — theotheri @ 3:30 pm

Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, the original bishop from Holland, who has morphed into Santa Claus.

In my childhood we celebrated Christmas, but maintained the custom from our Dutch heritage and also celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas when we put our shoes outside to be filled with a gift from the saintly bishop.

My sister has just shared with me her efforts to spread this lovely tradition further afield.  Years ago she and her husband were friends with a family with 3 children, and they encouraged them to let them start the St. Nicholas tradition.  My sister surreptitiously asked each of the children what they wanted St. Nicholas to bring them.and received a request for a baton, and chocolate chip cookies.  Jason, the youngest,  said he hoped St. Nicholas would bring him a loaf of banana bread like the ones my sister makes.    So the night of December 5, she and her husband went over to the house and after the kids were in bed, left the treats in their waiting shoes.

The next morning, Jason asked his mother why St. Nicholas brought him a meat loaf.

And do you know what?  My said sister still doesn’t label the food she puts into her freezer.



August 28, 2011

If your mother were here…

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:48 pm

It seemed such a simple request.  Such an innocent inquiry.

I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

One of my brothers has for years been working on a family genealogy.  It’s been interesting to hear about various discoveries, and some time ago I helped him organize a family tree.

But I was caught completely unawares by the gravity of his inquiry last week asking if I might be able to find any of the passenger lists of ships that carried our relatives from Germany to America’s shores in 1846.

I won’t provide all the tortuous details.  I won’t list just how many Johann Matthias Jansen’s and family came to the United States in 1846.  I won’t even suggest all the various routes and circumlocutions one may explore in immigration records, passenger lists, family IDs, or birth, marriage and death certificates to find out who exactly was on which ship with whom.

I will tell you, though, that for somebody like me, it’s addictive.  It’s like eating candy.  “Just one more bit…”,  “Well, I’ll just check…”, “Well, one more won’t matter if I just look to see if…”

The problem that’s just dawning on me is that there is no end to this genealogy business.

Not just no end in sight.  No end.  Unless by some hallucinatory conviction I convince myself I have finally trekked back to the Garden of Eden.  Or the primates as they climbed out of the trees in Africa.

Posts on this blog have been stuttering for some time as I am ferreting my way through this labyrinth.  My grace period with expires next month and I’m hoping to avoid a the renewal fee.  So I fear the stuttering may go on at least into next month.

By which time I hope I shall have arrived at the Garden gates.

Or not.


May 29, 2011

What happens next, mommy?

Filed under: Family — theotheri @ 8:19 pm

We will not be staying for the entire performance.

Leonard Cohen

It’s one of the worst things about dying, I think – that we never find out how the story ends.  Our whole consciousness seems geared toward moving toward some sort of completion.  But the frustrating reality is that the life of each one of us ends before the story is finished.

It even seems that there is no completion.  Existence, as the Buddhists might suggest, seems to be an endless, infinite process.

My sister-cousin died peacefully last night.   May she rest in peace.

May 28, 2011

Memorial Day

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Family — theotheri @ 4:06 pm

It is my experience that Americans talk about death more candidly than most English people I know.  It is also my experience that we talk about death in my family more candidly and more often than most Americans.  We talk about it a lot – how so many deaths in our childhoods affected each of us, about our own deaths and how we hope to face it.

This is probably due first to my mother.  When at the age of 46 she was told she had six weeks to live, she did not pretend.  For those of us old enough to understand, she talked to each of us as individuals about her hopes for us, her love for us, the strengths and struggles she foresaw for each of us.  My father faced death twenty years later with equal honesty, and so did my younger sister when she learned, also in her mid-forties, that her cancer was terminal.

Last week, my half-sister suffered a stoke, and she is now in a hospice with no more than days to live.  I never lived with her and we were not particularly close.  But so much of the past is coming back to be remembered again.

And now, as in the past, I have turned to music.  Not to my analytic words, not to my store of scientific knowledge, but to that medium that has never failed to take me to some level that I have never reached in any other way.

I can’t understand Death – real death of people I love or of my own death – through sheer intellectual analysis.  It doesn’t make sense that way.  I can’t accept it.

But music says something to me I can understand in no other way.  Sometimes it is folk or country, sometimes it is jazz.  But when I am staring at the loss of someone I love, it is Beethoven.

A poet may be able to say it in words, an artist with paint.  But for me, music is my meditation.  Music shows me a world I can see in no other way.

I have listened again today to Beethoven’s 8th symphony.  And I thought again, as I have often thought before, that if I know I am dying, I will play Beethoven’s symphonies, and I will not know when I slide from this world into whatever happens after death.  Because I will already feel that I have arrived.

May 25, 2011

Telling it like it is

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:54 pm

I am puzzling mightily these days over the reality that saying what I think sometimes bears no relationship at all to communicating what I think.

The more I think about it, the more complex the problem becomes.  First of all, it affects almost every area of human communication.  It matters in families just as much as it matters in the international arena.  In my family, many of us – especially among the women – tend to speak softly especially when we know our thoughts and judgments will not please the person about whom we are thinking.

This has reduced the number of shouting matches and overt ruptures among us, but it has also resulted in some of us having no suspicion at all of the negative responses we are creating in our own family.   This is a life-long reality.  We may break up into small groups and say kindly “well, that’s so-and-so, you know s/he’s always like that.”  But we do not tend to confront each other.

In recent years, though, I have seen that taken to an extreme, an attitude like this is enabling.  It supports the very dysfunctions that a little self-knowledge may help to correct.

But this presents a critical difficulty.  Communication takes two people – one who says accurately what they are thinking, and one who hears accurately what is being said.  How often do I not say something critical because I know the hearer will not interpret what I am saying in the way I mean it?

And the opposite is unfortunately just as true.  There are some members of my family whom I think I would figuratively murder should they offer any kind of sensitive criticism.  Especially if it were accurate.

I’m facing a situation right now where I do not know if the better choice is to remain silent or to attempt to communicate that I’m feeling taken for granted, that part of my life that belongs to me is being hijacked for someone else to grandstand.  And this is being done under the guise of trying to support me, of sensitivity, understood in terms of our “special relationship.”

Which, with Obama visiting us over here, gets us back to the international relations.    The same difficulties are created among nations as in families by the fact that accurate human communication requires that both the speaker and the listener get it right.

Let’s not even get into the fact that sometimes we deliberately lie to deceive each other, or send coded messages that we expect the other person to be able to decode.  “Oh, I don’t mind at all,” might really mean “I’m absolutely furious.”  Or “Never mind, it’s not important” might really mean “It’s obviously not important to you or you wouldn’t have ignored it, but I am very hurt and I’m going to sulk.”

I’d like to say I have discovered the solution to this communications problem.  Unfortunately, I haven’t.  (Would you believe me if I said I did?)

The best I’ve come up with so far is to tell myself to remember there’s no right answer that fits every situation.   In real live situations, applying the principles of love and truth can be a tricky proposition.

April 10, 2011


Filed under: Family,Growing Old — theotheri @ 4:25 pm

By popular request, here is the full Haiku sent by our ten-year-old nephew to celebrate my sister’s 65th birthday:

You are kind of old

We will make you an old cake

Happy Birthday, B

Love, LP

April 9, 2011

The much younger generation

Filed under: Family,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 7:21 pm

In celebration of my sister’s 65th birthday yesterday, her ten-year-old nephew composed a Haiku poem for her.

I have not received a copy of the full work.  But the first line is memorable:

You are very old.

I told my sister to put it in her will that a copy of the poem should be delivered to him on his own 65th birthday.

By which time his own grandchildren will be thinking the same thing about him.

And he won’t be thinking it at all.

February 24, 2011

Getting it wrong might be right

Filed under: Family,Teaching,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 5:02 pm

I have a brother.  Actually, I have five brothers but anyone who knows my family will know immediately which brother I am describing.

I think almost until the day Dad died, Tom was at war with him.  Even as a child, he was objecting, disagreeing.  If I was the over-socialized good daughter, he was my dark side.  Despite absolute parental prohibitions, he hitch-hiked rides from the age of six, learned swear words I didn’t understand, and probably made up sins out of sheer spite when we were taken to church to confess our sins each Saturday.

He’s in his seventies with a grown family of his own now.  Nonetheless it took him a long time to let go of his anger.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s justified or not, he told me the other day.  It destroys you either way.

He also told me a wonderful story.  He is tutoring one day a week at a local school where the kids mostly have pretty rough lives.  Their fathers are often in prison, their role models often do not suggest to them possibilities that go beyond a successful criminal career.  They are angry, they are aggressive, they are physical.  And my brother understands them.

Last Tuesday a young boy – I will call him Joe – with whom he has been working on learning long division came into the room sullen and uncooperative.  “I can’t do these f’…g things,” he said.  

So Tom started to show him how.  The thing is that there is a new method for doing long division that is different from the one we were taught more than half a century ago.  And Tom did it wrong.

“Oh, here, this is how you do it,” said Joe.  And showed him what he was supposed to do.

I understood where he was coming from, Tom told me.  Tom’s not getting it right meant Joe wasn’t going to be criticized and humiliated by some superior adult.  Tom may have proceeded to exaggerate his confusion just a little, but Joe kept working with him.

When he got to the bottom of the page, he looked in triumphant defiance at Tom and said “See, I told you I could do it.”

December 5, 2010

Big happy families

Filed under: Family,In lieu of Biography: from Start to Now — theotheri @ 8:51 pm

People have suggested to me more than once that I should write the story of our family.  With a little effort I can make it sound almost idyllic – sort of a modern-day version of Little Women or Little House on the Prairie.

Here is the Hollywood version:

Although my father was a successful lawyer, we grew up on a farm with a lake where we went swimming in the summer and ice skated on in the winter.  There were cows and pigs and chickens, apple and pear trees and fields of wheat where we kids played hide-and-week and that my Dad and brothers and a couple of neighbours harvested every August.  My brothers used the tractor to work the fields, and occasionally toppled it over on a hill.  Once Tom drove it into the lake.

There were ten of us – five girls and five boys, half of us blonde and blue-eyed, several turned out to have inherited by grandfather’s gift for music and we stood around the piano singing songs on every possible occasion.  One brother was born crippled and we used to take him in a wagon up and down the hill to the road where the school bus picked us to and dropped us off.  Apart from that, and his crutches, none of us treated him differently from the rest.

We said the family rosary every night and went to church every Sunday.  The older children taught the younger ones how to walk and tie their shoes, how to swim, and how to bake Christmas cookies.

Then my mother got cancer and after only six weeks during which she did everything she could to help us, including I am sure arranging my father’s remarriage, she died.

Okay, there was a lot of love in the family.  There still is.

But big families have their unique problems.  Especially for the ones who are squashed in the middle.  They have to fight to be noticed, to be recognized as individuals like the older kids are, and often there simply are not the psychological resources to give them the attention they want.  And need.

And so children in big loving happy families often grow up, just like children in small families.  And the scars are there for a life time.

Believe me, they are.

November 26, 2010

Religion and dogma: a happy ending

Filed under: Family,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

In several posts last week, I reflected on the role ritual has played in my family, and about both those times when it has been strengthening and when it has been divisive.    Thanksgiving has always been in our family, as among many families across America, a time to get together, to celebrate, and enjoy each other.  We’ve had our traditional dinner at my grandmother’s house down the road, sang our songs around the piano, and on Fridays, weather permitting, went for a walk in Virginia Kendall Park.

But this idyllic scenario was threatened to be ripped apart when my brother Tom got a divorce and then remarried.  By then, my grandparents had died but Thanksgiving continued to be hosted by our unmarried Aunt Tillie who still lived on the homestead.

The problem was that Tillie believed the Catholic teaching that divorce was bad enough but might under extreme circumstances be justified.  Remarriage, however, was always  a grave sin – a mortal sin which condemned the unrepentant to eternal hell.  It is not mandated by Rome, as far as I know, but where I came from, many Catholics believed that divorced people who remarried must not only be refused communion, but should be expelled from the family and community.

Tillie was a very good, very earnest Catholic.  She was also a person whose love and open door to her nephews and nieces was a life saver after my mother died.  Especially for Tom who also was particularly close to her.  Tillie’s problem was that she thought on the one hand religious teaching demanded that she refuse to continue to relate to Tom, and on the other, she knew how devastating a decision like this would be for both of them and for his children.

On pain of fearing that she herself may be condemned to many long years in purgatory, if not an eternity in hell, she simply said she loved Tom too much.  She never closed her door to him.

Tillie did not have the analytical skills that some of us have.  I have discovered about myself, for instance, that I can rationalize almost any course of action, and I cannot imagine suffering any torment in relation to a decision like the one Tillie made.  All she had was her conviction that to hurt someone she loved and who depended on that love as much as Tom and his children did was wrong.  Period.  She couldn’t explain it.

She just knew that, whatever the price, she wasn’t going to do it.

I know several other instances of people who have made similar decisions.  And I admire them beyond words.  I fear that I myself do not possess this arrow that goes to the heart of the issue so directly, so honestly.  I twist and turn, looking at every aspect of the situation, even when we are talking about something as basic as simply continuing to love someone.

Most great religions teach that loving our fellow-man is fundamental.  Tillie was one of those people who, whatever the cost might be to her, just never lost sight of that.  She anguished, she kept going to church, I believe she lay on her deathbed fearing she was going to hell.

But she never stopped loving.

When I was growing up, I thought this kind of steadfast love was rather simple.  Not that Tillie was unintelligent – she was, actually, a gifted musician and teacher.   But, forgive me, I took it for granted.  I might even have felt that my own analytical approach was superior.

Addendum:  since this is a story about religious dogma and self-righteous rules, it might sound as if I am attacking religion.   But I think the problem is much more complex than religion.  It seems to me that in all groups one can find sanctimonious people who lose sight of the reason for rules and become obsessed with enforcing them to the letter for their own sakes.

A small example of this was featured in the news recently, when garbage men refused to pick up the bins of an elderly woman because the lid was slightly ajar.  “The rule,” they said, “is that bins must be securely closed.”  To their credit, the local authorities suggested that in the future the men use a little bit of common sense and compassion.

Maybe even a little brotherly concern.  Sounds like a sort of secularized version of the command to love ones neighbour, doesn’t it?

Tillie would certainly have understood.

Addendum II:  I have only in the last several years really understood that authentic religion is not about belief.  It’s not about dogma and doctrine.  It’s not about power or social control or converting others to the ‘true faith.’

It’s about loving.

If it gets in the way of loving, there’s something terribly wrong.

November 17, 2010

Religion and ritual

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Family — theotheri @ 5:14 pm

When my mother died, I was 19, and I, along with my four sisters and five brothers, were all believing and pretty much practicing Catholics.  My mother’s funeral was a traditional Requiem Mass which we all understood and from which I suspect we all took some sustaining strength.

By the time my father died almost 15 years later, many of us were no longer practicing Catholics, and some like me no longer could be considered believers.  But we were bi-lingual, as it were, and Dad’s funeral was a Catholic funeral with all the trimmings.  We knew how to participate in it, and at the end of the Mass as we marched out of the church burst into a robust and spontaneous rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

When my younger sister Mary died of breast cancer in 1994, the Catholic allegiance of her brothers and sisters was in tatters.  Mary herself had at first not wanted a Catholic funeral at all, having given up on Catholicism many years before.  But as we talked about it with her, we gradually agreed that the Catholic ritual was the one we all knew.  The poetry, the song, the lights, the processions were all expressions of sadness and loss and joy and celebration that we all knew.

Fortunately we were able to hijack the ritual this time.  There was no coffin at Mary’s memorial mass, we chose the readings which came from ancient as well as modern sources and none of which were Biblical.  We sang songs from our childhood, and offered prayers that were uniquely composed for this occasion.  Afterwards we returned to the family farm and ate and drank and told stories about Mary.

For most of my adult life, I have felt almost schizophrenic in participating in rituals like these.  The sense of hypocrisy on the one hand and yet participation on the other has created a sense of unease not only at funerals but at weddings, or even when a prayer is said at the dinner table.

But I’ve come to understand something that makes it all right even for someone who has rejected Christian doctrine as completely as I have.  It is this:  whatever our beliefs, whether we are religious or firm non-believers, we are surrounded by mystery.  We don’t know what happens when we die, we recoil at cruelty and injustice in the world, we don’t know whether Homo sapiens will survive until the next millennium, we mourn the loss of loved ones when they die.

And our friends and loved ones are often our strength when these events come crashing into our own living rooms.  They are often the reason why we can go on living in the face of loss sometimes that can seem far worse than death itself.

Ritual is one of those ways in which we support each other.  Bursting into The Battle Hymn of the Republic gave me great consolation when Dad died, not because mine eyes had seen any great glory.  But because it was an expression by all of us who knew and loved my Dad.

So I’m not going to feel like a hypocrite anymore when I participate in the rituals I know.  Whatever the pope might say, the essence of religious belief is the human community.  It is not belief in God or Jesus or in the resurrection or in heaven and hell or the Trinity or any other theological dogma.

It is in standing together with my fellow human beings and saying “we’re all in this together.  We can’t – none of us – can do it alone.  We are here for each other.”

September 17, 2010

Missing persons

Filed under: Family — theotheri @ 2:46 pm

Since I was born and raised as a Catholic in mid-west America, I quite possibly know more people who come from large families than the average person.

Large families have a good provenance in America.  Little Women and Little House on the Prairie would make you think that love and support and ingenuity cements large families together, providing a wealth that money can’t buy.

I am  someone who has been tremendously fortunate in the opportunities life has strewn in my path, and someone who still gets great delight and enjoyment from my family now spread across the United States and beyond.  But I am nonetheless convinced that large families, even the best of them, have vulnerabilities and wounds and pitfalls that smaller families often avoid.

As I talk to my friends these days about what has happened in their families and compare them to mine, again and again I find that someone has disappeared.  At least one member of the family found living in its tight grip was intolerable.  Sometimes they have disappeared altogether:  “The last time anyone heard he was in Oregon,”  or “J says she moved to Amsterdam.”  Sometimes they have just cut themselves off, avoiding all family get togethers from funerals to weddings to anniversary celebrations.

This happens most often, I think, because you can get squashed in a big family.  You can get squeezed out and suffocated or pushed into a role that destroys you.

I know how heart-breaking it is when a sib cuts him or herself off.  I speak from experience.

But I think sometimes it is not an unhealthy thing to do.  I think sometimes someone finds their role in the family brings out the most neurotic, the most self-destructive, possibly the most cruel aspects of their personalities.

And though it can’t be any easier to walk away than it is to be cut off, perhaps it does often represent a healthy anger, a refusal in the end to be totally defined by this immensely powerful block of people called family who think they know you so well.  And who, with all the best intentions in the world, keep stuffing you back into that bag where you are slowly suffocating.

I was the oldest sister in my family with one older brother.  I had a lot of room to breathe, to be special, to be encouraged, and to feel self-confident.  But as I look down the line, it is possible that some of my younger sibs were not so fortunate.

I know I’d be quite a different person if I’d not been number one or number two from the very beginning.

September 11, 2010

Recognizing intelligence

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense — theotheri @ 8:25 pm

For all our intelligence, it’s amazing how often we humans have trouble recognizing it:

  • Research shows that children invariably know who the smartest kids are in class in a way that teachers often fail to recognize.  Children aren’t fooled by grades – they know there’s a difference between getting good grades and being smart.
  • For centuries, scientists argued that animals had no intelligence at all.  In fact, in my own professional life time, Behaviorism argued that intelligence was an unscientific concept, that animals were no different from machines and were controlled solely by a pattern of environmental rewards and punishments.
  • Even today, quite well-educated people believe that the intelligence of Homo sapiens is superior in every way to the intelligence of any other living organism.

All of which has made me wonder why as a child I thought my Dad was so smart and that women, including my rather gifted mother, weren’t.

One reason, of course, was the role of women in a traditional Catholic household in mid-20th century America.  Women were expected to stay at home and take care of the children, do the cooking, keep the house clean, and submit to their husbands.  The men were supposed to go out and hunt – err, I mean, earn a living.

But in my case there was another reason.  Dad treated all children who could at least walk and talk as if they were  adults.  He talked to us like adults, he reasoned with us like adults, he explained things to us as if we were adults.  That often made him very hard to understand.

My mother, on the other hand, had a gift for explaining things in terms we could understand.  She understood how children thought, and she herself had an ego that was strong enough not to need to make us think she was smart.  What she wanted was for us to think we were smart.  She was awfully good at making hard things seem easy and giving us the confidence to believe we could do them.

Lots of BalloonsI didn’t understand that.  I just thought she wasn’t as smart as my Dad.

But I think she was.  She was just smart different.

The interesting post script to this is that, although I have eight younger sibs and am a cognitive developmental psychologist who has written books and articles about how children’s thinking develops, I’m much more like my Dad.  I talk to children as if they were adults.

I don’t do it out of principle.

I just can’t do what my mother could.

July 3, 2010

Souvenir of sin

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:43 pm

Driving along Rt. 80 through Pennsylvania last week, I listened to a National Public Radio report on National Library Week.  The reporter was discussing the current funding difficulties of our libraries, which led him to experience a public pang of guilt about a book in his possession.  It was five years over-due from his local library.

He mentioned this illicit possession to a head librarian and asked for advice.  She recommended that he contact X, which he did, who castigated him for the condition of the book.  He claimed it was in that condition five years ago.  X was unimpressed, but agreed to take the book back nonetheless.  He asked if he was going to have to pay the fine, and if so, how much it would be.  As I recall, it had accrued to about $350, but X was willing to let the long-term borrower escape with a tongue-lashing.

It reminded me of a greatly treasured book on my own shelves, a book given to me by my father shortly before he died.  It is The Historical Geography of the Holy Land by George Adam Smith, D.D., 4th edition published in 1904.

The outstanding characteristic of this book for me, however, is not its content, interesting and well-written as it is.  It is the fact that it had been signed out of the Akron Public Library, and was due after 28 days on May 19, 1942.  Dad said he hadn’t returned it because he hadn’t finished reading it yet.

I’m not sure exactly at what point an overdue book crosses the line to being a stolen book, but I would suspect that this particular copy of The Historical Geography of the Holy Land probably qualifies as stolen property.  So I googled the author and looked the book up on Amazon.  The library had officially noted that all the maps are missing in this copy, and so I suspect its value is well below the $16.94 being asked for a used copy published in 1894.

Still, I grew up in a family that graded various sins carefully, and stealing was not dismissed lightly.  You might think that our grading scale lacked a certain moral sophistication – eating meat on Friday could condemn one to eternal hell fire while telling a small lie merely merited some uncomfortable time in purgatory before going onto heaven.  Still, I still think that stealing, by and large, should be avoided under most circumstances.

But this dusty book with the missing maps means a lot to me.  It’s a reminder that even the most loved among us are sinners.  And that, somehow, delights me.  It sets me free.  And gives me greater hope for all of us.

Perhaps I will send a donation to the Akron Public Library.

But I’m keeping my overdue – err, stolen –  book.

March 19, 2010

Shock vs surprise

Filed under: Family,Growing Old — theotheri @ 10:25 pm

I got a message through our family list serve last night that my younger (younger!) brother had been rushed to hospital with a heart attack.  I’ve talked to him and he hopes to be home in several days, so the news isn’t nearly as traumatic as it could have been.

But even a brush like this with our mortality comes as a shock.  Actually, there are many of us in the family who have already lived long and full lives, and this kind of news is going to start coming.  So it wasn’t exactly a surprise.

But I realized again that surprise and shock are completely different things.  Knowing that death is coming does very little to reduce shock when it does.  It’s like preparing oneself for a slap in the face or stepping into a freezing shower.  Knowing that it’s coming doesn’t make it less shocking when it does.

I really haven’t the slightest idea of how to reduce its impact.  It’s certain that I and everyone I know and love – and don’t know and don’t love, for that matter – are going to die.

But somehow it’s such a shock.

We were made to live.  I think perhaps a time comes when one realizes – really deep down from within the depths of oneself – that it’s time to go.  But I must admit I haven’t found it in myself yet.

February 28, 2010

More worries about Plato’s left hand

I’m not really worried about whether Plato was left-handed.  But I’m worried about the influence of people who see the world in the way Plato seems to have seen it.  Because it is a view of reality that still exercises immense influence in the modern world.

I am not thinking, at this point, about Plato’s super-natural perfect world which has been hijacked by Christian theology and populated with spirits.   I don’t believe in the existence of that world, but my concerns tonight are for the influence in modern thinking of what I think is a form of brilliant semi-autistic thinking.

In particular, I am thinking of a small group of people, of whom I suspect Plato was one, who are highly gifted mathematicians and often musicians, but who, at the same time, are severely handicapped in their ability to understand less numerical concepts.   As a result, they are often extremely shy, uncomfortable in social situations, unable to intuit what appears to us as the most obvious feelings of others.  They are sometimes surprisingly concrete in their interpretations of what they hear, and so don’t understand poetry at all and misinterpret symbolic thought as literal.

Plato himself thought that poetry should have no place in society, and instead told poets that they should say “what they really mean.”

I remembered that yesterday when I heard a leading scientist here publicly argue for saving money in our schools by teaching only science and math on the grounds that literature and the arts were a waste of time we could not afford in this time of austerity.

It is an argument that has been running through the philosophy of science and through what are considered the “softer” sciences like psychology, sociology, and political science for more than a century.

Fundamentally, the argument has been whether everything that counts can be counted, and whether what can’t be counted should be included at all in a valid scientific analysis.

The recent financial crisis is a dramatic illustration of this debate applied to real-world systems.  Chastened economists have been looking at the rubble of the economic system they thought had tamed financial risk with sophisticated mathematical formulae powered by prodigious computer technology.  One economist even wrote a history of risk entitled “Against the Gods” in which he argued that financial risk had been permanently reduced by derivatives, securitization, CDOs, and the whole panoply of complex configurations that only a few could understand.

Financial analysts, traders, regulators, or bankers who argued that there was something else that needed to be taken into account besides what was included in these quantitative analyses were dismissed as old fogeys.  They were shelved and dismissed while for ten years a new form of credit risk dazzled and blinded financiers.

Not every gifted mathematician shares a blind spot for interpersonal, symbolic, poetic, and social reality.  Research suggests that those who are truly incapable of understanding these things lack what neuroscientists call “mirror neurons.”  It’s a syndrome that exists on a gradient, so one may be extremely a-social, belonging to a group labelled autistic.  But lesser versions appear as Asperger’s syndrome, or merely as shyness or social awkwardness.

I’m thinking about these people because when they are brilliant, even geniuses, it is not obvious that there is a whole half of reality to which they have no direct access.  Rather the way a color blind-person has no immediate experience of the difference between green and red.

I’m also personally concerned.  Because this syndrome runs in our family.  And although I am right-handed, I have recognized for many years that I have what you might call a “left-handed brain.”  I’m good at math and music, and with some instinctive wisdom, I became a cognitive psychologist, and went into university teaching, rather than becoming a psychotherapist.

What I worry about is just how big a blind spot I have when it comes to understanding other people.  Do I unknowingly miss the obvious?  Do I run rough-shod over the feelings of others?  Am I more sensitive to their effects on me rather than mine on them?

I know no one can really tell me the answer.  But simply entertaining it as a serious possibility has greatly increased my tolerance for other people who seem to me to so callously dismiss the feelings of others or to judge them with such arrogant ignorance.

I mean, maybe I do too.

January 9, 2010

Bob the Builder

Filed under: Family,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:17 pm

Bob the Builder: R-Vee Playset With 2 Extra Figures and Tools **NEW**When the children’s game Bob the Builder hit the market, there was universal agreement among his sib that our brother Bob must have been the progenitor.

Bob isn’t a builder exactly – he’s a trained engineer who is now working as an accountant.  But he’s a problem-solver.  Whether it’s attic insulation, a wood burning stove, a leaking pipe, a stalled car, or a broken vacuüm cleaner, ask Bob.  He will have an idea.

My very best favourist idea that he ever had, though, he got talked out of.  In fact, as far as I can tell, I’m the only living person who thought the idea actually had possibilities that went beyond burning the house down.

Somehow he discovered that a nest of squirrels had made their home in his attic.  He thought that it would be best if they left, but preferred that they left voluntarily.  So putting poison out for them was dismissed as a potential solution.

What he was going to do until, as I say, he got talked out of it, was to take his barbecue grill into the attic and use it to smoke the squirrels out into the fresh air.

If you think that was a dangerous idea, you are in a majority of about 99.99%.

November 27, 2009

Blog break

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:34 pm

I plan to be back by December 6.  That’s the day Dutch children put their shoes outside the door with the hope that Santa Nicholas (who in his pre-saint incarnation was a much-loved bishop) will put something in them.  It’s the more modest precursor to Santa Claus who actually gets into the house via the chimney.

The name of my father’s family in Germany was Von Hoerrman.  Von is roughly equivalent to the prefix of “Lord,” or possibly “Sir.”  But dad always said he thought the original name was actually Van Hoerrman, from the Dutch, rather than from the more lordly German.

As children we used to put our shoes out for Saint Nicholas, a tradition from my father’s side of the family.  So perhaps I do have some Dutch forebears along with my German, Polish, and possibly Jewish ancestors.

Not, actually, that I ever turn up anything in my shoes these days.

In any case, I hope to return here on the Day of the Shoes.

November 25, 2009

The limitations of perfection

If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.                                                                                                                  Albert Einstein

I’ve never actually worked the numbers, but I think most of my family have above average IQs.  Most of us are also well-organized, hard-working, industrious, and reliable.  On occasions even heroically so.

But by and large, I don’t think we’re very creative.  Take me, for example.  I am good at explaining difficult concepts.  Even on occasion something as difficult as relativity – once I got my own head around it.  I’m good enough at criticizing theories, comparing them, rejecting or provisionally accepting them.  But I could probably count the number of original thoughts I’ve had with the fingers of one hand and still have several fingers to spare.

Yesterday the reason for this suddenly seemed blindingly obvious.  We were raised as Roman Catholics.  Not only as Catholics, but as thinking Catholics.  Which means that we were immersed in the Platonic world view in which perfection exists in a supernatural world and toward which we should strive.

The problem with perfection, though, is that there isn’t any room for mistakes.  Getting the right answers, doing the right thing is perfect.  Saying something foolish or outlandish is to fall short.  So if one doesn’t know the right answer, it is better to be quiet rather than blurt out something stupid.

Or unexpected. Or creative.

For example, my little sister Mary once put forth the idea that we think with our stomachs.  Oh how we laughed.  I remembered that last month when I read that researchers have found clear changes that take place in the stomach when we concentrate.  But Mary, at the age of probably about five, was humiliated.

And that’s the problem.  Aiming to be perfect sets one on a very narrow path of established right answers.  If you are smart enough, you trip less often than most.  But you won’t risk being creative.  Not unless you are very courageous, willing to be laughed at, or simply have such a kooky brain that these outrageous ideas just keep coming whatever the social cost.

Brainstorming is often the first step toward coming up with a creative idea.  Saying anything that comes to mind, not criticizing it but seeing where else it can take you.  We didn’t brainstorm in my family.  We worked at getting the right answer.

As  I move toward completing my 7th decade, I am reaching the conclusion that right answers have a lot to answer for.

November 23, 2009

How long is now?

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:54 pm

For some unknown reason I was remembering today a conversation I had at about the age of twelve with my sister C who was about three.  By the time I was twelve, I had a lot of authority in the house, and if I told one of my younger sibs they could do something, it was pretty close to my mother giving permission.

So I’m in the kitchen with my sister C about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and she asked me if she could have a cookie.

“Not now,” I said.  “Maybe later.”
Long silence.  Presumably to give the impression that the subject has changed.  Then:

C:  “How long is now?”
T:  “Well, how long now is depends on what you’re talking about.  But now is until something important changes.  Sometimes now is a long time, sometimes it’s very short.  Like now might be short if Mom says dinner is ready now.  But it might be long if she says it’s winter time now.”

A few minutes after this conversation I finished what I was doing in the kitchen and left.  When I returned, C was eating a cookie.

“C!” I said.  “I told you that you couldn’t have a cookie now.”
“I know, but you said now was over when something important happened.”

I knew already I was not going to win this battle.

“And what happened that was important enough for it not to be now any more?”  I asked.
“You went to the bathroom.  That’s important.”

I said in the About the Author page of this blog that I thought I learned to value the importance of seeing more than one point of view because my eyes each create a slightly different image.  So I have a permanent experience of the fact that things can look different if you look at them from another perspective.

But I doubt now that’s where I learned it.  I learned it because Dad was a lawyer.  And successful lawyers learn to look at both sides of an argument if they want to win their case.

And then, of course, there was all that practice in the kitchen around negotiating cookies and all the things the word now can mean.

July 19, 2009

Scrabble Speak

Filed under: Family,Growing Old — theotheri @ 9:14 pm

Two of my sisters have got me playing on-line Scrabble, a game we played as children with a proper board and tiles, a single abridged Webster’s dictionary to settle disputes, and words that we used in conversation.  The most sophisticated were words we learned for our school essays.

My goodness things have changed in the last sixty years.  These days one can go on-line and download an unabridged list of all two- and three-letter words in the entire English language.   Not only that, but I have just lost my case that we should at least know what the words we use mean.  In Scrabble, what matters is that you know the word exists, not that you can use it in any other meaningful context outside the Scrabble board.  And of course, the more words you know which include the letters X, Z, and Q, the more successful you will be.  There is an entire Scrabble Vocabulary with words that I think are used exclusively for Scrabble competition.

In desperation, I’ve been paging through my five-inch thick Cambridge Unabridged Revised English Dictionary with a magnifying glass.  Relying on something as limited as a Microsoft spellchecker or Thesaurus is useless.  So far, I’ve learned the meaning of words as esoteric as ZA, ZARU, UT, XU, and GOX.  I doubt, though, that any of them will enter into routine conversation with any normally sane person.

What is astonishing is that my will to win seems undimmed from the heights of my energetic youth.

I may even have to learn to play like a fanatic.

May 8, 2009

Mom’s Day

Filed under: Family,The English — theotheri @ 8:00 pm

Mother Day is called Mothering Sunday here in England – a ghastly adjustment in the transatlantic crossing of the original Mother’s Day which began in America a couple of centuries ago.  (I haven’t always known that – I read it in Wikipedia, which means it might be right.)  Besides mangling the name, Mother’s Day is celebrated over here in March, which is why I’m claiming I couldn’t remember when Mother’s Day is in America and I had to look it up.  

I read yesterday, though, that Michelle Obama has adopted the official title of “Mom-in-Chief.”   I personally think this is just brilliant and it delights me no end.  She’s the First Lady, the wife of the President of the United States, the first Black woman ever to hold this position, and an accomplished lawyer.

And what does she say about herself?  That she’s serving as the nation’s First Mom.

It’s enough to make me want to celebrate Mother’s Day.  

Something of a challenge since my mother died 50 years ago, and I haven’t any children who call me mother.  Or mom either.

April 16, 2009

The Wozniak Syndrome

Filed under: Family,Husband,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 9:23 pm

I have a friend who now lives in upstate New York, but who spent most of her teenage years in a Displaced Persons camp in Europe.  She suggested I might like to read “Wild Place,” by Kathryn Hulme, who was one of the people helping to run a DP campfor displaced Poles after WWII .  I am reading a chapter a day, totally mesmerized.

Last night I read about the week the DPs were told that Polish officers were coming to the camp to register them as Polish nationals, and that they would be required to present some kind of evidence attesting to their identity.  The idea was, they were told, that this would facilitate their return to their homes in Poland from which they had been evicted, chased, or bombed so many years before.

At this point, Polish elections were planned within the next several months, which the DP camp supervisors believed would be free and democratic.  The DPs, however, had already heard via the grapevine that it was not going to be free, that the Communists were going to take over, and that those who were already in Poland were not going to get out.  The DPs had no intention of being sent back into the cage.

At the camp meeting during which they were told what to bring in order the register, the DPs sat silent, and after the meeting, filed out without further comment.

The registrations were due to begin early in the morning, and the Polish officers arrived, dressed in their long coats and black boots and shiny insignia.  Nobody came to register.  Nobody responded to the officials who came to the living quarters to remind them.  But a group of men gathered.  They escorted the Polish officers back into their car, picked it up, and threw it down the hill and out the camp gate.

Several weeks later the Poles held their “free election.”  In the end, the Iron Curtain came down, and they didn’t get out.  Not until the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989.

I am half Polish.  And when I read that story, I knew I was reading about my relatives.  I recognize that look that says “No.”  It says “No.  I don’t care what your logic is.  I don’t care what your evidence is.  I don’t care what your power is.  I don’t care if you know I am wrong and you are right.  I’m not doing it.”

My Dad used to call it “The Wozniak Syndrome,” after my mother whose maiden name was Wozniak.  I think their marriage survived because most of the time my mother gave into my father.  But when he saw that “Wozniak look,” he learned not even to argue.  He wasn’t going to win.

I’ve developed a sneaking admiration for that Wozniak Syndrome.  I see the Yorkshire version occasionally in the face of my husband, whose family grew up – literally – at the coal face during the War.  I’ve seen it in the face of an Irish friend who may keep smiling when she disagrees but who is not going to change her mind whatever you might offer.

It’s a survival mechanism that goes beyond reason.  Beyond logic.  Beyond the empirical evidence.  

Would to God a few of our bankers had shown a little more of it during the last twenty years.

I looked  “Wild Place” up on Amazon.  There was a paperback copy for $25.  The hard back is on offer for $146.  I’m reading my friend’s copy for free.  But it is, in truth, priceless.

April 2, 2009

The old kitchen table

Filed under: Family,Growing Old,Husband — theotheri @ 3:44 pm

There was a table in Peter’s parents’ house in the north of England.  It was dark oak, and has been in the family for generations.  The marks of what it has witnessed are on its face.

 It was there during the Depression, when coal miners were often out of work, and Peter’s grandfather helped make ends meet by serving hot tea to workers on their way to the mines before day break.

The table was there during all of World War II as the bombs dropped over the coal mines where Peter’s father worked the night shift.

It was there the first time I met Peter’s parents.  And the last.

And now it is in our kitchen.  Peter has sanded off the dark oak stain and revealed the grains that give it character.  But what I love even more than the flow of the wood are the marks of living.  I don’t know where most of them came from.  One mark looks as if a hot cup was left to stand so long that it actually seared into the wood.  Another seems to be the result of an almighty bang that chipped off a corner.  There are spills that might have been beer or soy sauce or maybe even shoe polish but which have soaked in deep enough to be there forever.  

My favorite mark is a gash about a sixteenth of an inch deep cutting about six inches diagonally across the table top.   My brother Bob was helping us install bookcases, and was using the table as a sawing horse.  The cut looks so old and weathered enough now to be antique.  It is unremarkable alongside fellow marks that have been softened with age and sanding and refinishing, and blend in with the deeper life of the wood.

But all of them have been earned by the people who sat before it.  Each of them is a testament to the struggles of staying alive, of the simple processes of eating and drinking and probably of projects both successful and failed.  Of mistakes and spills and hopes and plans that make up the years of life.

 It’s a living table, that has come down to us for generations.  That’s what I love about it.

March 22, 2009

English Mother’s Day

Filed under: Family,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

Today is Mother’s Day in England, sometimes called “Mothering Day,” so as not to discriminate against those mothers who are not biologically-speaking a mother to the offspring in question.

It’s probably iconoclastic to recall today of all days my existential objection to motherbhood offered to the dinner table when I was about 12, but much to my surprise, I must admit that I quite possibly have been more of an iconoclast than a peacemaker most of my life.  

Anyway, at 12 my struggle with the meaning of life took the shape of the question  “Is that all there is to life?  you grow up, have children and die?”

As the undoubted beneficiary of someone who did indeed think that growing up, having children, and dying was sufficient meaning for her life, I have moderated my evaluation of motherhood somewhat.

But only somewhat.  I had hoped to have children, but lost the baby.   I was obviously disappointed, but in retrospect, I am not one of those women who, now that it is too late, wish I had had children.  I don’t.  

In fact, I still feel that, for me at least, to have dedicated my whole life to raising children without having any other serious goal or interests would have been suffocating.  And as I look around, it seems to me that for many – though not all – it is for other women too.  Women have minds and talents and insights that go beyond raising children.  And for many of them, not to use them is deadening.

What children need – indeed, what husbands and wives and families in general need – varies hugely.  What is right for one family isn’t right for another.  What is deadly for some women, some children, some husbands, is liberating for others.

I am someone who needed to work, to think, to worry about issues beyond my immediate family.  I needed that more than I needed children.  So I celebrate mother’s day with gratitude for those mothers who are truly mothers, but without regret that I’m not among them.

Even if it might not be exactly politically correct in every group to say so.  And I am terribly grateful that my own mother didn’t feel that way.

March 19, 2009

The younger set

Filed under: Family,The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 3:05 pm

Our guests, who represent several generations beyond my own, have departed.  They are raising a young family and many of their challenges are those of parents anywhere anytime who want the best for their children, and worry that they might be getting it wrong.

They are optimistic and energetic and hopeful, but I do not envy anyone raising three children in today’s economic climate.  Although it seems to me that every generation lives with some unprecedented challenge.  For me it was the second world war of the century, then the fear of the atomic bomb (would Russia drop it on us now that their spies had stolen the secrets of how to do it) and Communism.  Latterly it has been AIDS, and global warming, and environmental destruction with the threat of massive worldwide food and water shortages in less than 20 years.

We spent several hours discussing the causes and cures of our current economic crisis.  Academic Nephew suggested that, although the proximate cause was the credit crunch and the dire straits of the banks, the long-term cause began with Ronald Reagan when productivity (ie: the things that were being sold and making money) began to outstrip salaries (ie:  people’s ability to buy them).  The difference was made up by easy credit and increased private and government debt.  Available credit was increased by China’s massive purchases of U.S. treasuries, and by the funny money, of course, that the banks convinced themselves they had found hidden in the impenetrable mathematical formulas they devised but often didn’t understand.

We did, I admit, spend much more time talking about the children.  I don’t suppose you’d like to see some pictures?

February 26, 2009

100 but not counting

Filed under: Family — theotheri @ 9:24 pm

A friend of ours who will be 76 on his next birthday told us the other day that his sisters from Greece and Australia are joining him and a third sister this weekend to celebrate his father’s 100th birthday.  His father has been dead for many decades, but they thought this was a good anniversary to celebrate nonetheless.

On reflection, I thought so too.   Our father, too, has been dead for many decades, but I thought it would be great fun to celebrate our father’s 100th birthday where we all grew up.  Our family has the good fortune of my brother’s family who still live on our original homestead and who seems to make us each and all welcome for weddings, funerals, and assorted birthdays. 

My plan was that we could spend the next three or four years planning to converge in Ohio on the great date. 

Unfortunately I’ve run into an insurmountable barrier.

My Dad was born in 1908.

February 17, 2009

Born recyclers

Filed under: Family,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:56 pm

Recycling is considered responsible and virtuous these days, and I can compete with the best in not throwing things into the trash.  But I fear my recycling doesn’t spring from responsible virtue.

I have a sister and a brother who, like me, seem to be born recyclers.  It is important, here to make a distinction between recycling and collecting.  To the untutored eye, they may look suspiciously similar.  But the essence of recycling isn’t to let things lie dormant while they increase in size, if not in value.  The essence of recycling is to find another purpose for the presently defunct item.

It’s the challenge of finding another use for something that is perfectly sound but no longer needed in its present form.  So I have made waste baskets out of lamp shades and the bucket of a broken ice cream maker.  I have made a newspaper rack from an old log carrier, a wood box from an old tv stand, skirts from dresses that are no longer fashionable.  I’ve used wine corks to line plant pots, and egg trays to keep nails and screws in assorted groups.  Etc.  You get the idea.

I am not married to a natural recycler, and so I can’t just slap anything together and call it recycled.  It’s got to look good, fit into the decor, and somehow be useful.   I will admit that being married to Peter has definitely raised my game.

I used to think I was a recycler because I was trying to save money.  But that really isn’t it.  It’s the challenge that I can’t resist.

And as I think about Darwin and the theory of evolution, it does seem to me that quite possibly it is the recyclers who inherit the earth.  Birds build nests out of bits and pieces they pick up here and there.  Man made his first tools out of rocks he (or she) that were laying around, and caves – which weren’t sold in the first place as housing – were our first shelters.

Today recyclers are in great demand for turning our garbage into ev erything from energy to shopping bags, packaging, compressed shelving, and shipping crates.

They are even using recycled material to produce toilet paper.  Now there’s an achievement a born recycler can be proud of.

November 6, 2008

The day after the day after

I can’t stop yet.  Like thousands of others writing and talking about it in the media and private exchanges, I keep thinking about the election.  Here in England the papers are full of columns, reports, and predictions.  A barbershop in a black neighbourhood in Leeds stayed open all night because it got CNN so all the regulars just moved in until morning.  The people in our local store whom I’ve never spoken to are talking to me about Obama.  A neighbour came by simply to say congratulations.  My own mind is still whirling.

One of my more personal conundrums keeps returning.  Like so many others in America, my family has been riven in these last ten years by an almost insurmountable chasm.   It has been with great determination, and the salvation of significant distance that we have managed to stay on speaking terms.  But something broke among us.  The ease and delight of seeing each other that I had known for 50 years slowly drained away over rabid disagreements over which neither side could compromise.  We disagreed about gay rights and abortion, about the war, and the rightful separation of Church and State.  There were a whole array of topics which we dared not even mention.

By coincidence, the birthday of one of my brothers was Wednesday.  He had been an ardent supporter of Bush, and had already made it clear to all of us that we should now “vote our conscience” and support McCain.  As I watched the supporters at McCain’s headquarters listening to his concession speech, I knew how my brother must be feeling.  I knew from their faces, but I knew too because I remember the sense of devastation I’d felt four and eight years earlier.   And I wondered what I was going to say as I wished my brother a happy birthday.

I thought about it as I read Obama’s acceptance speech, in which he said again that Americans aren’t Blue and Red.  We are all Americans, whatever our political affilitation.  But he meant more than our politics.  He meant that with all our differences – black and white, Christian and non-Christian, male and female, liberal and conservative – we have something else in common that is more important than what separates us.  We are all Americans, all committed to justice and freedom and opportunity for all.

And as I read it, instead of feeling a kind of angry triumph that this time “our side” had won, I felt enlightened.  What Obama is saying, and what he demonstrated throughout the campaign, is that we have so much of value that we share.  The differences, I think, were exploited and exacerbated by Bush & Co.  They deliberately used the “values war” to gain more votes.  And in fighting them, I – and many like me who joined the “other side” – helped solidify these two sides, shouting at each other across the abyss. 

What Obama is saying is not that we should stop being different, or that one “side” can now stand victorious over the defeated.  But that we should concentrate on those values we share, the great and wonderful things we have in common.  Now is the time to build bridges, and to walk across those that others build to us.

And so I sent my brother a birthday wish, remembering those things that are important to us both and that we share with a depth and passion that goes back to our familial roots.

He wrote back today, saying “yes, we can!”

Well, words to that effect.

September 26, 2008

My grandfather’s reading glass

Filed under: Family — theotheri @ 8:17 pm

I heard a busker on the street in Cambridge yesterday playing “My Grandfather’s Clock,” a folk song from my childhood, to which, unusually, I remember most of the words.  “My grandfather’s clock was too big for the shelf, so it stood 50 years on the floor.  But it stopped dead never to go again when the old man died.”

Today I was sewing, and as I always do, I used a small magnifying glass no more than 3/4″ in diameter to thread the needle.  This glass belonged to my husband’s grandfather who used it to read as his eyes changed with age.  Today, in similar circumstances, I have reading glasses placed in strategic spots throughout the house, with an extra set for my coat pocket.  But Peter’s grandfather did not have that luxury.  His mother died in childbirth, and six months later his father died.  He was raised by sundry relatives, and by the age of eleven was working in a brick factory.  He had come from generations of pharmacists and doctors, but times were rough in the north of England in the first part of the 20th century and within five years he was down the coal mine.

But he was a reader, and that made him something of a rebel.  Unemployment was high, and so when men were let go, he was one of the first to be fired.  His daughter Annie – who became Peter’s mother – went out to work as a store clerk, and he and his wife made buns and got up at 5 a.m. to sell tea to miners on their way to work.  And he kept reading.  When he died, he left behind notebooks of records of the weather and the price of wheat and government policies and the plight of the workers. 

When Peter was a child, his own father worked the night shift managing a coal mine – essential war work.  Peter’s grandfather in many ways took his place.  He might have left school at the age of six, but he read so voraciously that he was truly well-educated.  He took Peter on long walks and talked to him about economics and social class and workers’ rights.  He taught him to love poetry and hiking and music.  When he died, along with his notebooks, he left his mouth organ and his reading glass. 

We still have them both.  And every time I pick up his reading glass, I feel a surge of gratitude to this man who owned so little and left behind so much.  I know because I’m married to his grandson. 

I never met Peter’s grandfather, but I would be proud to leave a legacy as rich as he has.

September 8, 2008

Not dying isn’t the same as living

Filed under: Family,Growing Old,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:40 pm

It’s amazing how fast one’s focus of attention can change.  Yesterday I was thinking about the end of the Roman Empire, and wondering with this election if America had reached a critical point which will ultimately decide whether America’s hegemony will end with the Barbarians at the gate.  Concomitantly I spent some energy cheering for Andy Murray at the U.S. Tennis Open, and celebrating birthdays of my niece and husband.

And then I perused my email this morning as I routinely do and flash!  My nephew has sent a message to the family list serve to say that my older brother Tom was in a hospital in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, after he’d been air-lifted from the Grand Tetons where he’d been hiking.  Tom told me years ago that he hoped to die somewhere in Alaska while he was hiking, but I suspect today he feels this scenario at age 69 is a little premature.

It seems to have been a close call, and they are keeping him there for some time after emergency surgery.  He’s doubly lucky because it looks as if he is going to be okay.  But he’s known for years about a hernia which he was told could kill him and that he’s resolutely ignored.

It’s easy to say he should have had it fixed when the sun was shining.  But I have some sympathy for people who say they would prefer to die sooner rather than using up huge expenditures of anxiety and time and money asking the medical profession to make sure they don’t die.

I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet, but I’ll bet that even now Tom hasn’t changed his mind about doctors.  Though I dare say he’s grateful for their skill at this particular point in time.

August 26, 2008

Favourite cards I didn’t send

Filed under: Family,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 11:17 am

My sister Dorothy and I have a tradition of sending birthday cards we really wish we could send to somebody else but don’t dare.  It’s a kind of negative-humour therapy mostly to deal with family relationships that are best not expressed directly to the principle protagonist.

One of my favourite cards, about which I have been thinking a lot lately, is

All the world’s a little crazy except thee and me.

August 13, 2008

Solving the world’s problems

I’m finding that family visits do not, somehow, become routine, although they are recognizable.  My brother Bob and his new partner Cathy have just left to return to the States after six rather intense days.  In between doing a lot of touristy things at Cathy’s requests, we had energetic discussions about the difference between conviction and intolerance.  Bob had already reached the same conclusion that I had that if one was unable to consider the possibility that one’s views were wrong, or incomplete, or at least discussable in the light of other alternatives, one should suspect intolerance and fear.  He reminded me of the quote from a someone whose name we couldn’t remember, but whose wisdom we nonetheless appreciated.  It was an appeal to Oliver Cromwell:  “I beg you to consider the possibility that you are wrong.”

We also agreed that certainty backed up by the claim that it is based on an irrefutable revelation from God is particularly suspect.  Not because God is involved, but because people shielding behind the certainty of God’s revelation have such a bad track record.  Being positive that one is absolutely unquestionably and totally right unfortunately doesn’t make it so.

Cromwell, among hundreds of other Certains, engaged in some ethnic cleansing whose effects are still being felt.  He was not only responsible for beheading the King of England in the 17th century, but he is the one who authorized the invasion of fundamentalist Protestants into Catholic Ireland, where he is profoundly hated to this day. 

On a more practical level, Bob also rehung several cupboards for us, tried to find the source of a pesky leak in our conservatory (it’s the kind that only leaks when it rains), and assured me that our rain gutters do indeed need cleaning.  He said I should finish the job of scraping the moss off our roof before it damages the tiles, and that the insulation I put down in our loft is fantastic. 

So all in all, we’ve solved most of the world’s problems.  We felt that someone else would have to find an alternative energy for oil, however, that being beyond even our combined and sustained capacities.

August 5, 2008

Worry by association

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 11:06 am

Bob (brother coming to visit from Detroit) and Cathy (partner) are supposed to be arriving in London this morning.  They emailed me late last night that they’d been re-routed to London via Houston, Texas, and were scheduled to arrive several hours later than they’d originally planned.  According to the Heathrow flight board, their plane landed almost three hours ago, but they have not telephoned.  As I listen to the loud noise of the phone not ringing, I am thinking of the hundreds of thousands of people who have waited over the years at the open end of catastrophe, hoping that the phone will ring with the news that someone they love has been rescued or found or has emerged from the rubble.

My best guess, though, is that their baggage has been lost in the last minute flight changes.  Replacing a tooth brush and comb will not qualify has a Great Event.

Assuming that they do arrive, tired but in the appropriate arrangement of pieces, my postings will be sporadic for the next ten days or so.

July 30, 2008

Only an economist

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:30 pm

My nephew John is currently in India where he is working with a team studying the effects of microfinance.  Microfinance represents small loans – sometimes very small loans – given to the poor, often to help them set up a business.  A woman might be given $100, for instance, to buy a mobile phone.  This might be the only phone in the village where she lives, so she is able to rent it to others to make calls, while they themselves are able to use it to start or enhance their own business activities.

Finding out under what conditions microfinancing is effective requires some understanding of the culture, and in this pursuit John is now playing soccer regularly in the local neighbourhood.  It’s the monsoon season, so this really means playing soccer in a field of mud, but it’s a popular neighborhood activity, in which almost everyone seems to join in.  Taxi drivers will park their taxis and join in with school boys and shopkeepers.  The unique Indian contribution to this game is that it is played without shoes.  Players are either barefoot or wearing socks.  This levels the playing field so that people who do not own shoes or who cannot afford to submit them to a regular mud bath can play on equal footing with the more well-off.  Without this rule, a player with shoes, or even worse, with cleats in his boots would never be out-played by the barefoot.

Along with this approach to learning the culture, a group of the researchers also regularly go out to dinner together, when they play “credit card roulette.” It works as follows:  at the end of the dinner, everyone gives the waiter his or her credit card, and the waiter is asked to pick one randomly.  The person whose card is picked pays for everyone.  The next time, that card is not included in the pack.

My nephew is studying for his Ph.D. in economics.  He’s a brilliant numbers man, which I suppose explains the credit card roulette.  I think it’s the muddy soccer field though, that’s going to make him an outstanding success.

July 22, 2008

Wait ’til Bob comes

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:43 pm

I was using our circular saw this afternoon to make some small fence repairs when it suddenly stopped working.  I tested the plug, which was still firmly seated, so I switched outlets.  That also had no effect, so after jiggling a few wires with the hope that I might reconnect a loose wire, I declared the saw dead.  We bought it in Spain close to 20 years ago, so there was little chance of taking it back to the seller with a demand for a new one, and I use it rarely these days.  So I decided to trash it, and should I ever need another one, to worry about getting a new one then.

I told Peter what had happened and what I was going to do, and he said “Why not wait ’til Bob comes;  he’ll know how to fix it.”  Bob is my younger brother who has visited us perhaps ten times in the last twenty years, during which time he has repaired, hammered, sawed, built, put down or put up book cases, closets, insulation, guttering, clocks, brackets, hooks, tiles, showers, and lights.  Often I would get up in the morning and discovered that he had made himself a cup of coffee and set about fixing something or other that needed doing.  He is multi-talented, and almost limitlessly generous in sharing his skills. 

One of his friends suggested giving him a t-shirt reading “If it ain’t broken, what fun is it?”

So when Bob comes to visit, the great temptation is to save up those niggling problems I can’t solve.  He’s flying in for a six-day stay in two weeks, and I’ve already got a switch on my vacuum cleaner that is broken, and a wall cupboard that needs to be removed from the wall where it keeps hitting us.  Well, we actually hit it, but it’s the cupboard’s fault, so it will have to go. 

Fortunately, the circular saw will not be on the list.  Not because it’s in the trash, but because when the electricity was turned back on, it started to work again.

June 13, 2008

My neurotic shyness

Filed under: Depression and Autism,Family,Husband,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:49 pm

Since childhood, my life has been indelibly influenced by two diseases – depression and cancer.  I have never had cancer myself, and only once have I experienced prolonged depression.  Mostly whatever understanding of depression I have comes from my education as a psychologist and more profoundly from my role as a daughter, sister several times over, cousins, niece, close friends, and wife of someone who does suffer ongoing bouts of depression.  But I do have first hand experience of a painfully debilitating neurotic anxiety.

When I have to meet new people in a social situation, I become intensely nervous.  The reason I am so clear that it is neurotic is because it is totally, utterly irrational.  I can break into a cold sweat simply as a result of a casual exchange about the weather at the supermarket check out.  My heart rate is elevated for hours before and late into the night after a party during which I have to make small talk with people whom I’ve never met or don’t know well.  It is positively excruciating for me to walk into a doctor’s office for a consultation, and my anxiety has been so intense during the few job interviews I have had to endure that I cannot believe I was actually given and held qualified professional positions throughout my adult life.  Even a casual exchange with a neighbour over the fence can leave me with a feeling of awkwardness and the impulse to flee.

It’s not that I usually can’t think of anything to say, that I don’t enjoy people or find them interesting, nor do I think they don’t like me.  By and large, enough people like me well enough to give me more than the minimum number of friends I want or need.  In fact, by and large, people often think I am unusually confident and self-assured  and do not suspect that, given my talkativeness, I am so ill at ease.

I am confident and self-assured in academic situations, during serious debates, and with my friends and family.  But in the ordinary, unimportant exchanges of normal life, I am intensely ill at ease.  I think part of this is the result of growing up in a large family and close-knit Catholic community where I always knew everybody and they knew me.  But I think part of it is simply bio-chemical. 

I strongly suspect this kind of anxiety is not uncommon, and that many people suffer from it.  I do not think I am unique.  But unlike some, I’ve never found that alcohol or marijuana made things any easier for me.  Like people with depression, I think I simply must live with this painful consciousness, knowing it is irrational and unrealistic, but none the less painful.  I enjoy people far too much and even go out of my way to seek them out to say that I am autistic.  But I have a streak of shyness and awkwardness with strangers that I expect will be with me forever.

That, I guess, makes me doubly lucky to have a husband whom I still enjoy so much, and brothers, sisters, and friends who make me feel that I am somehow special. 

And who don’t make me nervous.

June 6, 2008

Remembering my sister Mary

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:01 pm

Thirteen years ago today my sister Mary died of breast cancer.  That was the day I discovered that psychic pain could be worse than any physical pain I have ever imagined.  She was 46 but I thought of her as young and vibrant and about seventeen.  She loved beautiful things and the reading at her memorial mass was the story of Mary Magdalene’s washing Christ’s feet with expensive oils and perfumes.  Mary was certainly prepared with an ample supply.

By the time she died, Mary did not believe most of the teachings of the Catholic Church.  But she did live by one commandment:  to love.  We used to call her Mother Hen because she worried about everyone she loved, her twin brother Bob, her sisters, especially the two younger than she was, and worried that after Mom died, she hadn’t “raised” them well enough.  She was eight when she took on this momentous responsibility.  She gave huge sums of money to friends in trouble with the knowledge that she would not be repaid.  She did not mind.  If they were happy, she was happy.

I don’t remember anniversaries very often, but I remember Mary almost every day and talk to her constantly.  I talk to her when I’ve lost something I need to find, or when I’m hoping for something I can’t influence myself.  I talk to her more than to anyone else when I’m trying to face some situation with integrity and generosity rather than with the self-serving that is my first impulse.  She thought I was so wonderful that it somehow makes me want to strive to be what she so wholeheartedly believed I was.

Several months before Mary died, a waitress in a pub where Peter and I often went for drinks told us her sister had died.  I smiled politely, but I would have been more sympathetic if she’d lost her mother or daughter or husband.  Now I understand that losing a sib can be like losing an arm.  Maybe an arm, a leg, and half one’s heart.

I still miss her.  And I know now that I’ll die before I stop missing her.

(I have, however, lost an expensive pair of specially-made sunglasses.  If they don’t show up today – and I don’t think they will – I may have to concede that talking to Mary when I lose something maybe isn’t really an effective strategy.)

April 2, 2008

Kristin Lavransdatter

Filed under: Family,Growing Old,Growing Up,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:49 pm

I’m reading a book by Sigrid Undset that won the Nobel Prize in 1929.  My mother told me she read it three times in her life – once before her first child was born, again after her sixth child was born, and after her tenth child, and that it was like reading three different books as her understanding and insights changed with the years.

I read it the first time almost half a century ago, and am only now reading it for a second time.  After nine years in the convent  and thirty-five years of marriage, a different book it certainly is.  But what fascinates me most is that I think it’s as close as I’ll ever get to reading a biography about my mother.  It takes place in 14th century Oslo which is not where one would expect to find a parallel life for a second-generation American Polish woman like my mother.  But I’ve been having mental conversations with her as I make my way through the 1000 pages of Kristin’s life.

Kristin is the oldest daughter of an upright and successful farmer held in high esteem in the parish.  Historically, it is before the Reformation, and the teachings of the Roman Church are unquestioned.  My mother was like that.  I’m much more of a doubter, but for my mother there seemed to have been an unquestioning belief in God’s love and justice, in heaven and hell, and in all of Christian doctrine.  Like Kristin, she celebrated with her family the feasts of the Christian calendar, preparing special foods for special days, fasting, and worrying about her unworthiness.

My mother also married a man like Kristin’s father whose religious principles were rigorous.  In search of the ideal life, my parents bought land that was gradually tamed with wheat fields and cattle, and where my mother raised her family.  She was passionately in love with my father until the day she died, a passion that survived what must have been a fair number of insights into my father’s depression and general anguish at what he perceived to be his failures.

I told my youngest sister, who was six when Mom died, that I was lending the book to her.  She said she in turn wanted to share it with her own daughter who never knew her grandmother. 

I said I am bequeathing my mother’s 80-year-old copy in my possession to her, but for now I want it back.  Because I want to read it again in another ten years if I’m still here to read.  I’m pretty sure it will feel like a different book yet again.

March 12, 2008

In remembrance: RWR and a milk shake

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:37 pm

When my mother died and my father remarried, life changed.  Sometimes, I think in desperation to excuse the things she said, Dad described his second wife as “artistic.”  Mom’s children, especially those still living at home, found the term less than adequate.  In truth, Dad did too, and he would sometimes go out drinking with his law partner, R, who called her simply “Mother Hubbard.” 

This wasn’t quite fair because she was an extremely attractive and witty woman, but it was immensely therapeutic, not only for Dad but for his children who dared not say out loud what they thought.  R had a sense of irrepressible humour that could neutralize the bitterness and anger and replace it with laughter.  I think he was sometimes responsible for saving the very sanity of Dad and some of my sibs.

My brother Jack has just sent the family an email to tell us that RWR died today.  He had been in a hospice for the last several weeks, and this morning when he woke up asked for some cookies and a milk shake.  Which he ate.  Then he closed his eyes and died.

I haven’t seen him since “Mother Hubbard’s” funeral.  But I loved him.  He was Dad’s best friend and I don’t think there was a single Herman who has forgotten what a gift he was for us all.  He had an amazing capacity to wrench some modicum of laughter, even joy, out of whatever life threw at him.  I hope that he had some inkling of how much he gave us.  And how much we loved him.  I never told him.  It would have sounded too patronizing somehow, maybe too fawning. 

He died as he lived.  Dying with a milk shake and cookie is quintessentially Dick.

Thank you for having been there for so long for so many of us.

March 1, 2008

Political correctness vs correct politics

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:26 pm

I’m beginning to think that political correctness is too much in the eye of the beholder to be of any use at all.  I have heard people without a bone of racism, an ounce of chauvinism, or inch of bad will say things that someone else thinks is politically incorrect at best and downright offensive at worst.

Yet we differ so much in how we interpret what we hear.  Yesterday my sister Bernadette said in a family email that the good news from Jack is that the brain surgery had not turned him into a Republican.  Another family member of a different political persuasion took offense.  Not all the Republicans in the family were affronted.  But this particular one thinks that political allegiance is off limits as an object of legitimate humour.

The cultural rules are different here in England, but with the increasing cultural diversity, there is an increasing difference of opinion about what represents appropriate humour.  As a cultural foreigner myself, I try to understand people’s intentions before concluding that I know what they really mean. 

Not that one can ask directly.  “Are you a racist?” would probably elicit a sincere negative even from the Klu Klux Klan.  By the same token, it is quite possible to be for Clinton or McCain rather than Obama without being a racist.

February 29, 2008

On walking away from brain surgery

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:55 pm

“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”  Winston Churchill

My brother Jack is home from hospital, and apart from the gash on his head, he seems completely unchanged as a result of his midnight brain surgery. 

Jack told me today that while he was in surgery, his son sat with his mother surfing the net on his mobile learning about the effects of sub-dural cranial haematoma.  He wouldn’t let his mother read what he was learning on the grounds that if her husband was not going to be able to walk or talk or think coherently, she didn’t at least have to envisage the prospect for the first time between one and six am in a hospital waiting room.

The euphoria is palpable.

February 26, 2008

Some mad woman on the phone

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 10:16 am

I have the dubious ability to hear the ring of a telephone at great distances.  I know when our neighbours’ phones are ringing, I hear them incessantly on the street, and in other people’s cars.  Today as we were arriving home from the supermarket, somebody’s phone was ringing.  I suddenly realized it was ours.

I could only think it was a call from the States and that Jack had taken a turn for the worse.  I rushed to the door with my key, and then dashed to the phone begging whoever it was at the other end not to hang up.  When I reached the phone, I picked it up and screeched “Hello!”   A small little voice at the other end said very politely “May I please speak with Phillip Schmidt?”  I took a deep breadth and tried to sound sane:  I think you must have the wrong number.

The caller apologized and hung up.  But I think she must have been relieved.  It must have sounded as if she had connected to a seriously disturbed wrong number.

February 25, 2008

Jack’s display: suddenly it’s all different

Filed under: Family,Growing Old,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 9:18 pm

The call came on Saturday out of the blue from my sister in Chicago.  Our brother Jack collapsed last night as he was helping clear the table after dinner, sending dishes, scraps of food and the family cat flying across the room before a final flourish during which he knocked over the table.  He didn’t lose consciousness, though, and said he was fine, an assurance belied two minutes later when he collapsed again on the stairs.  His wife Mimi refused to be convinced by his theory that his loss of balance was due to an ear infection, and called emergency.

At the hospital they diagnosed a haematoma in the brain, probably resulting from a fall some weeks before.  They prepared for immediate surgery.  But Jack was conscious and insisted on phoning his four children first.  He woke them up individually at about 1 am to tell them that this might be the last conversation that they would ever have together, that he loved them, and to take care of their babies – the various grandchildren who adore him in about the same proportion as he adores them.  Mimi says listening to the phone calls is something she will never forget.

He went into surgery at 3 am.  As I write this he is in intensive care, and says he expects to be back in the office by Wednesday.  The doctors say the best case scenario is that he is going to be in intensive care for quite some time, and will then almost certainly need physical therapy.  How much and what kind is still unclear.  Further surgery might even be required.  But at the moment the prognosis is a good deal more hopeful than it was at 1 am this morning.

I know he’s my brother, but I think it takes some bottle to call up your children in the middle of the night for what might be an ultimate farewell.  It must be something he’s thought about before, although he doesn’t go around talking about dying all the time.  I think it’s a legacy from our mom who talked to each of us quite explicitly when she knew she was dying.

His four children, in the meantime, are trying to come to terms with that midnight call, a once in a lifetime experience they hope never to repeat.  But will always, I am sure, treasure.  Even if their father lives for some good many years to basque in their delight.  We’re hoping he will.

January 10, 2008

The question of the premature tombstone

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:34 pm

My mother set the standard when the doctors told her she had six weeks to live, and death and preparations for death have never been a taboo topic for family discussion.  In fact, some of the spouses and partners think our frequent family conversations about death actually verge on the obsessional.  For myself, the possible neurotic element aside, I do not find it strange or marginally unacceptable for someone to plan their own funeral and to leave directions for wishes they have for where they will be buried and their possessions disposed of.

However, we are now in the midst of a family “event” which, even for our most liberal members, seems to have gone a little too far.  First a little background.  When my father remarried my aunt, her four girls who were already our biological cousins, joined our family.  Despite my father’s greatest efforts, the join was never seamless, but we more or less rub along.

One of Aunt Mary’s daughters, D,  has suffered since college from spells of severe manic depression which has required periodic hospitalization in the psychiatric ward.  When D is not in a psychotic state, she is intelligent, kind, and gentle, and it is easy to wish her and her children well.  But given her instability, her parental inheritance was put in trust under the authority of her sister M.  M is highly organized, with firm convictions (or opinions, depending on your point of view), she is decisive, controlling, and worries about details (or about trivia, again depending on your personal perspective on the importance of differences between a plastic and paper tablecloth and similar points of etiquette).

Two years ago, D was rushed to the emergency room, and for more than a week, doctors thought she was dying.  D had left instructions with M about her funeral, and asked that she be buried next to her parents in the local cemetery.  At the time, therefore,  M began to organize the funeral service.  When D recovered, most people assumed funeral arrangements had been put on indefinite hold.

So it was a shock (still reverberating around cyberspace) when two relatives visiting the graves of their grandparents shortly after Christmas this year saw D’s tombstone already firmly in place next to the headstones of her parents. 

At this point, it is a relief to be assured that neither D nor her husband know about the tombstone, and since they do not regularly visit the cemetery are not in imminent danger of finding out about it.  Nonetheless, it is a situation that some of us think should be rectified with some haste.

The interesting thing is that M’s sisters – and I myself – initially assumed that the tombstone was in place because M thought it would be a good idea to get it done ahead of time, ghoulish as most of us might think this to be.  It took an outsider to ask the obvious question, but it wasn’t until Peter said to me “Does M know about the tombstone?” that it even occurred to us that it might be a mistake.

So now the big negotiation is over who is best qualified to bring the subject up with M, and bring about the removal of the tombstone with the least amount of family upheaval.

Well, the way I see it, you can get quite upset about these things.  Or laugh about it.  I’m opting for the latter.

January 9, 2008

Family survival strategy

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 8:52 pm

I seem to have been involved in a lot of discussions over the holidays with different people about families.  Specifically, why families sometimes split up into angry little cabals, with brothers and sisters not speaking to each other, sometimes even losing contact altogether, living and dying in unforgiven isolation.

Why does it happen?  How is it that some families, often very close during childhood, become so angry that they cannot even speak to each other, while other families remain loving friends throughout their lives?

I’m not proposing an answer to this conundrum.  I do know that families, functional or dysfunctional, are terribly important to most of us.  We care more about the slights and hurts, the support and the love that we get from family members than probably any other single group of people.  Even close life-long friends often do not enter quite so closely into that inner sanctum of our psychological well-being.  And that is perhaps the context in which we should understand families – our own and everybody else’s.

My own family has its fault lines, some of which have approached the cataclysmic.  But without ever talking about it or ever developing it as an overt strategy, each of us seems to have hit upon the same partial solution when rupture threatens.  When a sib does or says something unbearable, or when the discussion threatens to overheat to the explosive point, we withdraw.  We don’t say we’re not speaking to each other.  But we tend to stop direct communication.  In my case in relation to my brother who is striving to be a saint, this mutual silence went on for years.  He told me I was married outside the church to a divorced man and on the road to hell, while I was appalled by his use of physical punishment to discipline his children.  Neither of us could see a bridge between the gulf that opened up between us.  But both of us avoided recriminations.  Well, both of us avoided shouting recriminations at each other across the miles that stretch between England and Mexico.  The advantage was that when we did meet at Aunt Mary’s funeral some years ago, we did not have to sweep up the ditritus of our angry words before actually exchanging a few civil words.  I doubt we will ever become close friends again.  But we are speaking, and I know we love each other.  Even if I think the distance between England and Mexico is none too great.

One of the advantages of a big family is that it is possible to do this kind of thing without losing contact completely.  There is usually someone in the family who can keep up with the other, sometimes who can intervene, or explain the other point of view.

Right now we are applying this strategy in what you might call the Question of the Premature Tombstone.  About which tomorrow.

PS:  I can’t find the results of who is winning the primaries in the straw poll being taken over here on the American presidential candidates.  The interest in election results, though, is probably as great here as it is over there.  Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire victory last night is the lead story in all the papers and TV news coverage today.

January 7, 2008

Families and other fonts of lost innocence

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:50 pm

I read in the paper today that divorce lawyers get more new cases on the first Monday back to work after the Christmas holidays than on any other single day of the year.  Apparently the stress of the holidays is simply the last straw for many couples already under strain.

This statistic gives me a strange kind of comfort.  There’s some consolation, at least, in knowing that my family isn’t the only one whose bonds of love and affection are strained by the enforced jollity and yuletide closeness.

January 1, 2008

Am I Jewish?

Filed under: Family — theotheri @ 8:24 pm

As we listened to the New Year’s concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra this evening, I began to wonder again:  am I German, or am I Jewish?  About ten years ago, my brother Tom asked me if I ever thought our family might be Jewish on Dad’s side.  We are indisputably Polish on my mother’s side, with multiple Polish-speaking relatives and a Polish grandmother in Warsaw who sent us communion bread during the war.  But we always seemed pretty German on my father’s side.  Both his parents spoke German, and our grandfather was an immigrant from Bavaria. 

Astonished at Tom’s question, I said yes, I had sometimes wondered if we were Jewish.  But I’d never said so to anyone else, and I certainly never expected the idea to come from Tom.  Then he told me how it was that he began to wonder.

The summer before, he and his wife had been hiking in Texas, where they walked into a country store that stocked almost anything anybody in the town might need.  As he gathered the items Tom and Jeanne wanted, the man behind the counter looked at Tom, and  said “You’re Jewish.”  “No,” said Tom, “my father was German.”  “What’s your name?” the man asked.  “Hoerrman originally” he said.  “You are Jewish,” the man answered emphatically.  “Believe me, you are Jewish.”

What do you think? Tom asked me.

Well, I do know my grandfather left Regansburg because he was slated to be a priest, and he did not fancy being celibate.  So he managed to leave Germany and worked his way to a German community in Wisconsin in America, where he met and married my grandmother.  He was always a practicing, if somewhat pragmatic, Catholic, and never suggested we had Jewish relatives.  But I do know that many Jews converted to Christianity to avoid persecution.  It would defeat its purpose if this information was passed down through the generations.  So it’s quite possible that originally my German ancestors were Jewish rather than from the red-haired Celtic tribes that the Romans called “barbarians” and who originally formed the various Germanic tribes.

My own inkling that we may come from Jewish ancestry sprung from my intuitive response to the Jewish intellectuals I met in New York City.  The first man I ever loved with real adult and total passion was Jewish.  A frission of recognition had been present with the NBC television crew who filmed the Maryknoll television show in which I participated, and was heightened by several Jewish university professors whose thinking most students found challenging, but which I grasped immediately.  I understood where they were coming from on some gut level.  For no other reason, I began to wonder if I was Jewish.

I also know that Dad was always adamant that the Holocaust was a terrible brutal crime against humanity.  World War II was one of the biggest influences of my life, because Dad would say again and again that to be silent in the face of such horror was to permit it to happen.  We had to learn to stand up and be counted in relation to small things, he said, because we never knew when or if we would need to stand up and be counted in relation to big things.

Were my German ancestors Jewish?  I think probably they were.  I would like to think so anyway.  I suppose the question could actually be answered through modern DNA testing.  But I shall not bother.  If you go back far enough, we are all related to each other.  We are all brothers and sisters.

December 26, 2007

An anger that doesn’t diminish

Filed under: Family — theotheri @ 4:57 pm

Probably  because it’s Christmas, which is either the best or the most ghastly time for family, I’ve been thinking about Dad and the will that I described in the posting last week.  Besides, I talked to Tom when I saw him at Bob’s birthday party.  He’d already started drinking when he arrived, and I joined him in the kitchen partly because I was glad to see him, and partly with the hope that I could keep him from becoming too obnoxious – which he is apt to do when he drinks.

As usual, Tom began obsessing about Dad.  I suspect both his wife and his oldest sons had told him when the will was published that if he did not get his anger under control he would lose his family.  You could not make a more terrible or terrifying threat to Tom and I knew he had been making a serious and sustained effort to subdue it.  His approach has been Buddhist in orientation, and he told me that he’d come to understand that he and Dad practically lived on two different planets, that they saw the world so differently that they could barely communicate.  I agreed with him.  I didn’t add that I thought that both he and Dad had a similar blind spot when it came to understanding people, and that they both suffered from an inability to understand how often what they considered straight-forward honesty was actually humiliating and intrusive.   This is true even when they were – or are – trying to be complimentary.  I didn’t say this because I knew from experience I would hit a dead end.  So I listened, holding my own glass of wine, while Tom continued his familiar dredging of the past.

But since Tom said that his anger was much diminished, I was unprepared for his new version of family events in the early years after Mom died.   It was not based on any additional insights gained in maturity into the nature of the challenge facing my father left with eight children under the age of 18 after my mother died.  It was rather a tirade against me for not supporting him in his fight with Dad over the way he and Aunt Mary were treating the children fifty years ago.  I was astonished.  Since childhood we had worked together as a team, “raising our parents” we sometimes said, always discussing goals and strategy in our attempts to move Mom and Dad into the world we wanted to embrace.  I think he felt betrayed by my going into the convent – that it was a victory for Dad rather than for him – but I never suspected that he thought I should have entered into a family fight from the cloistered life of my first three years at Maryknoll.

I have been wondering why it is that Tom remains so implacably angry, and why I do not.  I think I consider Dad’s leaving the will he did as big a betrayal of the principles he taught us as Tom does.  So why do I forgive him, and Tom doesn’t, despite his great efforts?  Indeed, the number of people included in his circle of anger seems to be actually getting bigger.

I know Dad was concerned that Tom’s inheritance might end up with his wife.  They were embroiled in hammering out a divorce settlement when Dad was dying, and it was typically vicious and vindictive.  I understand that Larry was not included in the will because he was going to inherit a chunk of the land and our grandparents’ house down the road, and when Dad was still alive, it looked as if it was going to be worth a great deal more than in the end – that is, by the time Aunt Mary died –  it was. I don’t think these reasons are good enough.  Cathy inherited a house when her husband died, and Bob inherited a substantial pension from Mary, and both of them were given an equal share of the estate.  So I do not think these are valid excuses for Dad to have drafted the will he did and for Aunt Mary to refuse to change it when she could. 

I forgive Dad because I can see now that when Mom died he was faced with a dilemma that was beyond his skill to resolve.  I think he knew that if his marriage to Aunt Mary effectively broke down – whether or not it technically led to a divorce – his children would be even more bereft than they had been.  And Aunt Mary was not going to change.  When he wrote the will, he tried to make a compromise with her over his children and hoped that his children would go that extra mile.  It wasn’t necessarily fair;  it was even deeply damaging,  but it was the only strategy he knew and the one he’d used from the beginning of the marriage.  He wanted to leave Aunt Mary enough money to live on after he had died, and to do that, she had to have control of whatever he left behind for as long as she lived.  If she objected to the will, his fear was that she would cut out some or all of his and Mom’s children altogether.  Better instead to achieve something and hope that ultimately, we would understand. 

But I really forgive Dad for his weaknesses and mistakes because I now know myself well enough to know that I need forgiveness probably more than he ever did.  I know that it is only circumstances and not my own virtue that have prevented me from betrayals that are far far greater than what looks like a betrayal  reflected in the will.

Having said that, I will admit that I was never thrown out of the house.  Tom was.  I was not cut out of the will.  Tom was.  Larry was.  I don’t know if my ability to forgive would be quite so easily achieved if I had been.

December 22, 2007

Little House on the Prairie Family

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 5:20 pm

As we were growing up on the farm in Ohio, we thought we were quite a special family.  We got into scrapes and troubles, but we were inventive and took care of each other.  We learned how to swim, and celebrated when one of the kids finally made it across the lake in one go.  We threw each other off the raft into the water, and played hide and seek in the fields of summer wheat.  I made cakes and apple pies and let the little kids lick the bowl.  We hid Easter eggs and made Christmas cookies in the kitchen and snowmen in the yard outside.  The boys learned to jump from the deck on the second floor when Mom wasn’t looking, and ganged together not to tell Dad about the latest breakage or accident.  We played 20 questions at the dinner table and discussed obtuse moral  questions like little theologians.  We sang songs around the piano, and at Christmas the house was decorated with two huge Christmas trees and masses of presents spread around the massive toy train that used up half the living room floor.

We thought we would always be like that, that things would never change.  But after Mom died, they did.  Dad began to engage in irrational temper tantrums, something I never saw because it never happened when Mom was alive.  I could barely believe the letters I began to receive from home.  Once Dad hauled the kids out of bed at one a.m. to remove all the dishes from the shelves and wash them again – and “this time do it properly.”  It was a desperate attempt to support Aunt Mary’s authority, and she did not try to moderate his tirades.  Cathy wrote and asked me if it were true that Mom had died because they were so bad.

Throwing Tom out of the house was, I think, the worst.  Because it crossed the very line Dad himself had drawn – not to ever let the sun set on your anger.  After Mom died, the sun set in anger quite a lot on our little house on the farm.

December 19, 2007

My father and his oldest son

Filed under: Family,Growing Old — theotheri @ 4:59 pm

My brother Tom was at odds with Dad for as long as I can remember, which is back to when I was about two, and Tom was three.  Tom was in competition with Dad, and I think even he will admit he sometimes fought mean and dirty.  It was the conflict that so often exists between father and the oldest son, given its special character by the fact that Tom and Dad were vastly different personalities with quite different gifts.

Dad was a lawyer, an intellectual whose practical skills did not go much beyond boiling water.  He taught us a high set of moral principles and said that sometimes a great price had to be paid to live up to them.  Fairness in our family was a cardinal virtue, and when one person received something, we all knew that everyone had comparable rights.   Nobody earned special privileges because Mom or Dad loved them best.  By the same token, we were taught that prejudice was wrong.  Dad was always clear that the treatment of the Jews in Germany was a great crime, and so was the prejudice shown in our own country against the Blacks.

Alternatively, by the time Tom was ten, it was obvious that he did not have the skills of a lawyer, but that his engineering abilities and a capacity for farming would eventually far outstrip Dad’s.  Dad knew how to put gas in the car and tractor;  Tom could repair the engine.  Dad planned a farm with a lake stocked with fish, a tennis court, cows that gave us milk, chickens, pigs and orchards that fed us, bee hives that produced our honey.  But Tom knew how to get the cows back in when they got out of the field and strayed onto the country road or into the creek.  Dad earned the money to buy the tractor and pay Phil, but Tom knew how to farm the land and how to drive the tractor.

Tom thought that Mom was not happy.  She was too lonely, she was too often pregnant, she worried about Dad’s depression, and blamed herself for not being good enough.   I think Tom blamed Dad.  Unlike me, Tom did not take Dad’s authority as tantamount to the law of God.  If I went to my bedroom and cried because I could not be as happy as my parents wanted me to be, Tom didn’t want to die because he thought heaven sounded ghastly.  Sitting on a cloud with a bunch of angels worshipping God probably felt like an even worse scenario than our family where Dad was the undisputed king, and whom most of us adored.  Tom told me when I was three that there wasn’t a Santa Claus, and by the time he was seven, he was hitch-hiking rides with strangers against Dad’s clear prohibition.  He was always a rebel.

The worst trouble, though, began after Mom died.  Within weeks after her funeral, Dad told Tom and my brother Dick that he was going to marry Aunt Mary, a widow who had been my mother’s best college friend and had married Mom’s brother and Dad’s former law partner.  Tom was aghast and Dick had severe reservations that the move was too fast.  They told Dad this, but Dad, in love with Aunt Mary, and at the same time seeing a way to care for his family, brooked no argument, and the marriage took place four months after Mom’s funeral.

The transition was not easy for anyone, and Tom watched our younger sisters in anguish.  Mom had been an earth-mother type, while Aunt Mary was more sophisticated with an ironic sense of humour and a sharp tongue.  She was less permissive than Mom, and jealous of her position of authority.  As it became clear that Bernadette and Cathy in particular were beginning to be damaged psychologically by the new regime, Tom confronted Dad. 

This was bound to be a failure.  Tom and Dad never had had a comfortable relationship, and Tom lecturing Dad on his new wife was explosive.  Aunt Mary refused to tolerate it, and finally one night, Dad ordered Tom out of the house and told him not to come back.  Tom got in his car and drove away.  My sisters sat at their bedroom windows in shock and watched the tail lights of the car disappear down the drive. 

With the years, the wounds more or less closed, if they did not fully heal.  In 1979 Dad died, leaving his entire estate, as we expected, in trust to Aunt Mary.  Until she died in 1995, only Jack knew about the will.  He tried to get Aunt Mary to change it — it was in her legal power — but she refused, saying it was what Dad wanted.

The day after her funeral, Jack told us.  Dad had bequeathed Tom’s inheritance to Tom’s children instead.  Larry, crippled all his life, received nothing. 

Tom and Larry were the two who never fully accepted Aunt Mary into the family.  The will was her victory.  But we were stunned.  It seemed a betrayal of everything Dad had taught us.  In truth, it still does.

December 18, 2007

Grown-up families

Filed under: Family,Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 10:42 pm

An Irish friend of mine quoted someone to me about Irish families yesterday:  The most wonderful thing about an Irish family is that they are always there for you.  And the worst thing about an Irish family is that they are always there.

It’s not just Irish families. 

My many brothers and sisters are one of the great treasures of my life.  They are also among the most irritating people I know.  I think it takes as much tolerance and growing maturity to hold a large family together as we each grow up and develop our own personalities and points of view and values as it does to hold a marriage together as one discovers over the years what a surprising individual one is living with.  In this context, Christmas is the best of times and the absolutely worst of times for families.  We all get together in a state of anticipation, high tension, and stress, and inevitably it’s a tinder-box that can be set alight with the slightest spark.

Having just returned from a large family get-together and dealt with some of the inevitable topics of tensions, I’ve been thinking about the potential – and real – fault lines in our family.  Many of them reach all the way back to that farm in Ohio where we grew up half a century ago. 

Right now the scar that is most raw is what I think was my father’s betrayal of his oldest son, my brother Tom.  It is a scar that does not seem to fade with time, especially for Tom.  But I will save that story for my next post.

December 15, 2007

Phil, our Black farm worker

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:55 pm

Just after World War II, a client of my father’s, John E.,  who ran a construction company, came to him with a problem.  A young Black man just returned from military service, had applied for work with his company, but John feared he would be at serious risk from the other workers because he was living with a White woman.  This was not the deep south, but midwest Ohio, which had fought with the North during the Civil War, and where people by and large considered themselves free of racial prejudice.  Nonetheless, John feared for him and wondered if Dad knew of any place where Phil might get work.

Dad hired him to work on the farm, and Phil and his wife Ethel moved into “the green house,” a small two-bedroom building that was standing on the land when Dad and Mom bought the 70 acres in 1942.  The house was not luxurious, but it had running water, an inside toilet, and heat, and it was convenient.  Phil worked the farm, and sometimes we visited him and Ethel in their house.  We saw Phil a lot and talked to him as easily as we talked to each other.  He told us about different kinds of weeds that were edible, and explained to my brothers what condoms were.  Phil knew a lot of things that were not the kind of things my mother and father knew, and few more that they knew but didn’t talk about.  

We thought of Phil as belonging to our world, though he never was invited to join us for a meal.  Or if he was, he declined, which is quite possible.  I think often he was more aware that he was Black than we children were.  For us, he was Phil.

After he had been working the farm for about ten years, Phil began to disappear for days at a time, and when he was there, his work deteriorated, he was lethargic and depressed.  He told my brother Tom that he thought he might go away.  One day he disappeared and never came back.  Ethel didn’t know where he was or where he had gone.  Months went by. 

In the spring they found him.  He was hanging from a tree in a woods rarely penetrated by humans.  The coroner ruled he had committed suicide.

It was many many years later, after my father had died, that my brother Jack suggested to me that Phil had not committed suicide, but that he had been lynched.  Phil had been in the Army, and if he wanted to kill himself, almost certainly would have shot himself.  Did Dad suspect that Phil had been murdered, and knowing that there was little he could do, simply let the case be closed without argument?  If he had fought for an alternative ruling, would he have put the lives of his own children at risk? 

It is impossible to know if Phil was lynched, and if he was, why, or by whom.  I do know, though, that Phil Abrams is the reason why I and all my brothers and sisters take the equality of Blacks and Whites for granted.  None of us think it a small gift.


December 14, 2007

The black art of political correctness

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 4:20 pm

I have just heard from a university friend that the faculty there is greatly exercised over whether it is politically correct to refer to a “white paper.”  Presumably this is an offensive slur against people whose skin is not white.

I was reminded of another friend here in England whom we ran into in the supermarket.  He was quite embarrassed because he had just asked a Black girl stacking the shelves if she could tell him where the black treacle was.  He seriously thought this would be interpreted as an ethnic slur, the way, for instance, calling a shade of shoe polish “nigger brown” is a slur.  He really seems to think that even hinting that one observes the obvious cultural and biological differences among us humans is crass insensitivity.  I don’t think he himself is prejudiced.  But he can’t tell the difference between noticing group differences and racism. 

In that context, I treasure the comment made to me once by a Jewish colleague who was talking about what it was like to be Jewish but to have a name, which he did, that sounded Italian.  People say all kinds of things about Jews to me, he said, because they don’t suspect I’m Jewish.  Then he turned to me and said “you aren’t prejudiced.”  Several years later I prevented one of my Black students from graduating with her class because she had not earned a grade for the class she was taking with me.  As a result I earned a reputation among the close-knit group of Black students as a racist.  But a year later, one of the Black students with whom I was working looked at me with surprise as we sat discussing his work in my office and said “You aren’t racist, are you?  They say you are, but you aren’t.”

No, I don’t think I am.  I am also comfortable with people from minority groups.  And the reason for that is Phil.

Phil was a Black man who couldn’t get a job after he’d served in the Army during World War II because he was living with a White woman.  At great professional cost, my father hired him to work on our farm, and gave him and Ethel, his common-law wife, a house on the land to live in.  He was there for about ten years. 

Phil is another one of those people who died before I ever knew what a gift he was in my life and for all my brothers and sisters.  I know he himself didn’t know.  It’s a long story so I’ll write about Phil’s time with our family in a separate post tomorrow.  

November 13, 2007

Something new from something old

Filed under: Family,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 5:24 pm

I just got an email that my niece Laura who we saw quite often during her year studying in London last year was rushed to hospital with an acute appendicitis.  She is gutsy, strong, and in great condition, even though very fine boned, so I don’t think anybody has moved into High Worry gear.  But I have been thinking about Laura.

The paradox is that she is both recognizable and absolutely unique.  Peter has told me that the way she protects her private self with a public smile reminds him of my own strategies for preserving my privacy when we first met 35 years ago.  And I see in her many of the characteristics I know in my own sisters.  Her sense of style and clothes sense is a lot like Mary’s was.  She has Dorothy’s intuitive and literary gifts, and her sensitivity reminds me of Cathy.  

And yet Laura is Laura, not a carbon copy of anybody.  I suspect she spent most of her childhood feeling overshadowed by her older brother who is mathematically extraordinarily gifted and her own quite outstanding artistic and literary abilities not given quite the level of recognition they might have received in a family with more prosaic numerical abilities.  She also has an intuition about people that made her unusually successful as a camp counsellor for young people whose own interpersonal skills were – to put it most kindly – deficient.

The genes any of us get have been chunnering around the human race for thousands of years.  So they are not usually anything new.   The surprise is that here they are in a completely unique person. 

I know this is true for each of us.  But Laura, for me, is a rare combination both of what I know and what I’ve never seen before.  I am looking forward to knowing who she continues to become. 

October 12, 2007

“Thank you for your interest”

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:58 pm

It sounds like a recorded telephone announcement:  “Thank you for your interest.”  But I mean it.

I know from looking at the pages that get hit in this blog that a lot of people are logging on to read about my life in the convent.  Unfortunately, I’m not a story teller, and I’m not writing this blog with the hope that it might turn into a bestseller.  I’m writing it to think about living.  So my forays into the past are in search of a better light on what I’m doing now.  I’m saying this because I am in danger of trying to keep you interested – to keep my blog numbers up, as it were.  But I can’t do it.

I find concentrating solely on the past is kind of suffocating.  This doesn’t make sense, because I believe the present can change the past, and the past certainly helps shape the present.  The family reunion last week was an example of this.  My mother died fifty years ago, and yet it was evident that the effects of her life are still vibrant.  It’s not because we talk about her much.  We don’t.  I in particular don’t talk about her a lot, because I don’t like to spend too much time in the past, and besides, at the time she died I was in a stage of teenage rebellion in which I found her annoying and needy and sentimental.  I don’t think that anymore,  In fact, I think she was an exceptionally brave, loving, and selfless woman.  On the other hand,  I don’t have a long list of syrupy memories about her either.

 Mostly what I write is sort of boring to everybody but myself.  And yet, it matters to me that you – my unknown reader – are there occasionally.  And I want to say thank you.  You’ll never know, but your interest helps me see things more clearly, live a marginally better life, to choose the less selfish road more often than I would if you weren’t there.

So thank you for your interest.  We don’t know each other, but I am glad you are there.

October 11, 2007

Hope: Of the fabulous and crummy

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 7:59 pm
Tags: , ,

At his birthday roast last week, my brother Bob read us a quote from William Sloane Coffin. 

“There are many people who go around and see nothing but beauty and are remarkably insensitive to the immediate needs surrounding them.  There are others who get so obsessed with the humiliated that they forget the sun rose today.  To keep life in some kind of balance, you’ve got to see the beauty and you’ve got to see the oppressed, and you’ve got to keep the tension alive between them.  

“What a fabulous world this is:  and what an unbelievably crummy world this is.  When life has that kind of tension in it, it will sing like a violin string.”

William Sloane Coffin, (1925-2006), Christian chaplain at Yale University, and internationally-renowned peace activist.

Right now, I’m seeing more of the crummy than the fabulous, which I suspect could turn me into quite an complaining hopeless curmudgeon.  I think I’d rather be a violin-string.  I’m going on a hunt for the fabulous. 

October 8, 2007

Confession: A cooperative venture

During the family reunion last weekend, my sister Bernadette told the story of how she had given a paper she’d written to our younger sister Mary to submit for a course requirement in college.  Upon reading the paper, Mary’s professor called her in and accused her of plagiarism.  Mary vehemently denied it, but the professor was adamant.  “A twenty-year old is simply incapable of writing a paper of this maturity.  I am certain this work cannot be yours.”  Mary was so affronted at the implied criticism of Bernadette that she replied in fury “You are wrong.  My sister wrote this paper last year, and she was twenty.”

I just learned today that this cooperative approach began many years earlier.  Mary, age six, was preparing for her First Confession.  For those of you not schooled in the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Penance, confession generally involves going into a darkened alcove, where a priest sits at the other side of the screen.  The penitent then confesses his or her sins and asks for forgiveness, whereupon the priest suggests a suitable penance, such as saying several Hail Mary’s, and gives the person absolution.

Mary, though, was short of a list of sins, so Bernadette gave her a suitable selection to present.  Dorothy developed a different strategy to deal with a dearth of required sins.  She committed them.  She omitted brushing her teeth at night in order to confess disobeying her parents, or did not turn her light out at night until several minutes after the deadline for reading, which again produced another suitable sin. 

The interesting thing about this mechanism was that, although it was necessary to have proper sins to confess, apparently they had to be legitimate sins.  Lying about them would be wrong.  As Dorothy said “I always told the truth.”

October 6, 2007

Trip to the past

Filed under: Family,Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:34 pm
Tags: , ,

I’m back in England after quite an extraordinary double visit to my past.  In New York, we had a reunion of about 25 of the 64 women who entered the Maryknoll sisters when I did, and the following week, we had a family reunion celebrating my brother Bob’s 60th birthday.  We don’t routinely have family reunions to celebrate birthdays, but decided this was a chance to gather for something less traumatic than a funeral, or even wedding.

More on both of the above in days to come.  Right now I am recovering from high-powered jet lag.  Travel these days seems to be in gridlock.  The Amtrak train between the Adirondacks and New York City was an hour late.  Then the American flight between NYC and Chicago kept us on the tarmac for three hours.  The trip home from Chicago lasted a full 25 hours, culminating with an over-heated bus to Cambridge from which we were all dislodged with our multiple bags and bundles. 

I met some extraordinarily interesting people on the way, though, which helps to compensate for the ghastly cough and cold I am now trying to dispense with.

September 17, 2007

Visit to my past

Filed under: Family,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:01 pm

I’m off for a two-week visit to my past so this is my last post until October.  First I am attending a reunion of about a third of the women who,  like me, joined the Maryknoll Sisters in the fall of 1958.  Then I am visiting my sister Bernadette, and joining in a three-generation family birthday roast,  a “Bob Blast” to celebrate his 60th birthday.  I think it’s been sold to him as merely a family get-together, so he may be a little non-plussed to discover that he’s the centre of the table.

September 9, 2007

Mom’s funeral

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 2:35 pm

On May 19, 1959, our postulant mistress, Sister Edmund Damien, called me into her office.  When I arrived she said “I guess you know why you’re here.”  “No,” I said honestly.  She told me my mother had died that morning, and that, accompanied by an older Maryknoll novice, I had permission to go home for the funeral.  I didn’t cry.  I don’t remember feeling anything.

That evening I was in my cell – the curtained area around our bed and locker each of us called our own in the large dormintory – packing the few things I would need.  Kathy Rossworn, a fellow postulant, came to say how hard it must be for me and how sorry she was.  I remember her expression of kindness as she sort of half laughed and half cried and asked if there was anything she could do –  “polish your shoes or something?”  I’m sure it is not so, but it is my only memory of anyone suggesting to me that my loss might have been profound. 

I took a plane to Ohio with Sister Bernice Marie, whose maturity my superior trusted.  I was expected to wear my postulant outfit during the entire visit, and was not permitted to take my younger and brothers swimming because that would have meant putting on a swim suit.  After all, it was clear by the mere presence of my Maryknoll chaperone that I now belonged to Maryknoll, not to my family.  And there was the recent mandate from my mother herself.  I had a vocation to be a nun, not to care for her children.  I remember sitting on their beds before they went to sleep talking to my younger sisters who wanted to know what would happen if Dad died too.  And saying to Dorothy, the youngest as we stood in the church “be brave.”  She was seven.  Cathy was ten, the twins two years older, Bernadette fourteen.  They were so vulnerable and courageous.

Hundreds of people, of course, came to the wake and to the funeral.  Many people wept openly, but I thought I was grown up enough not to need a mother anymore.  I was aware that I desperately wanted to be there for my younger brothers and sisters, and found leaving home this time far harder than it was when I left for Maryknoll the first time.   But I returned to Maryknoll thinking I had been responsible and mature.  

It would be years before I finally faced the devastation caused by my mother’s death and sobbed without restraint. 

September 7, 2007

Mom’s last six weeks

Filed under: Family,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 10:00 am

Although I didn’t know she had been told that she had about six weeks to live, my mother knew.   I now look back at the selfless, undramatic courage she showed during those last remarkable weeks with amazed admiration.  At the time, though, I took it for granted.

She did not look for pity or attention or stage dramatic scenes.  She had six weeks to finish a job that needed years.  Her oldest son was just twenty, her youngest daughter seven.  She spoke to each of us individually – what we should do, how we should carry on, and that she would be there looking down from above.  With the older ones she told us openly that she was dying, and we talked about it freely.  Mom was dying.

This openness has had a profound effect on our family.  We talk about dying far more often than most families, and when my Dad, and my younger sister Mary learned they were dying, we all knew.  We never pretended that everything was really all right, that the medical treatments were working, that somehow we were immune from death.

Mom and Dad came to visit me at Maryknoll, and I was given special permission to have dinner with them in the guest dining room.  We spent two days together.  She told me about the challenges she thought each of us would face as we grew into adulthood, our strengths and vulnerabilities.  Her message to me was that she and Dad did not want me to leave Maryknoll after she died.  I had a vocation and I was not to return home to take care of my younger brothers and sisters.  I did not argue, thinking she probably had several years to live, and although she was dying, it was still sufficiently distant to disregard.

 Two days later she was dead.

September 3, 2007

The death of the princes’ mother

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:29 pm

Ten years ago this week Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, leaving a devastated nation, and two young princes aged 12 and 14 without a mother.  Last Friday, Prince Harry (he’s the younger one with a reputation for – how shall I put it? – politically incorrect exuberance, perhaps) gave a personal memorial for his mother at the service held in Diana’s memory. 

He said that he and his brother William can divide their lives into two parts – before their mother died and afterwards.  Even at the age of 67, almost sixty years after my own mother died, I knew what he meant.  When a child loses a mother, especially when they are so young, nothing is the same afterwards.  It changes you forever.  Not necessarily for the worse, but it can change you in ways nothing else can.

August 28, 2007

Leaving home for the convent

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:00 pm

A friend who entered the convent months before I did has been sharing with me her poignant insightful descriptions of her large Catholic family and her decision to enter Maryknoll.  Today I was reading about the day she left her mother and father and nine younger brothers and sisters, and I found myself saying “Oh, don’t do it!  Don’t go!”

Of course, I was really saying it about the day I myself left my home in Ohio for New York and Maryknoll.  My little sister Cathy, my favourite, who was nine, came into my bedroom hours before I was leaving.  “I don’t want you to go,” was all she said.  I know she has no idea that it almost broke my heart.  But then she still had Mom and three other sisters, along with the five brothers. 

Eight months later she didn’t have Mom anymore.   And I was convinced that God wanted me in the convent.  Worse yet, so was Dad, and my superiors at Maryknoll.  I spent the next three years manufacturing headaches and strange lumps along with a display of neuroses that should have got me sent home.  I tried everything I could think of to get myself out of there by any way short of my having to face the fact that it was I who decided to leave.  If only they would send me, then I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about not doing God’s will.

It would have been a disaster at home had I returned from the convent.  I would no longer have had the authority of being the oldest that was taken for granted when Mom was alive.  Dad’s new wife had four daughters of her own and  I would not have been special.  Nor did I have the maturity to raise my younger brothers and sisters that I thought I did, and I certainly had no insight at all into my father’s need for a wife, not a daughter posing as one.  And had I actually been needed, I would eventually have resented having to finish the job begun by my mother before I could live a life of my own choosing.

So I know it was better that I was not living at home when my mother died, and that I did not return from the convent.  But Cathy – now Catherine – I am sure has no idea that not being there for her during those years is still one of the hardest things I have ever chosen to do.

August 22, 2007

The family on the farm: My youngest sister Dorothy

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:31 pm

Mom already had cancer when she was pregnant with Dorothy, though the local GP kept giving her antibiotics for the flu.  The operation, when colon cancer was finally diagnosed, gave her five more years and time to be Dorothy’s Mom.  Dorothy, at home alone with her while the rest of us were at school, had a unique time with Mom, unlike time any of the rest of us shared. 

For myself, I was furious that my mother had had yet another baby, and even worse, that I was expected to help care for her.  It’s not my baby, I said, it’s yours.  I didn’t think I liked her very much, but when Mom was hospitalized with cancer, I realized Dorothy was really a very cute baby, and that it was my mother, not my new youngest sister who was my problem. 

What fascinates me most today is that in many ways I think Dorothy and I have some significant things in common that I don’t share with any of my other sisters.  For one thing, we agree we both are what we call “bio-chemical optimists.”  This might make us unique in our immediate family:  possibly the only two who don’t do battle with recurring bouts of depression. 

Dorothy reminds me of our mother in more ways than any of my other sisters.  Like Mom, she is not overly interested in housekeeping, which may be why it’s impossible not to be comfortable in her home.  She shares Mom’s spatial disability, but also her intuitive compassion, along with the same kind of struggle to believe in herself as spontaneously as she can believe in others.

Dorothy has two children who are now energetic young adults.  She is divorced, thrives on living alone, and cares for and about people in her village like an earth mother.  She still believes in rainbows, loves her trees and raspberry bushes, and celebrates the solstice.  She writes poetry, creates musical portraits, and knows that light and dark always go together. 

August 20, 2007

My sister who became Catherine

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 4:30 pm

I was nine years old when Cathy was born.  I thought she was the most wonderful, beautiful, delightful child in the world.  She had blonde hair and large blue eyes, and a smile that could beguile a snowman.  She played the piano with innovative genius and in a family where outstanding musical ability was average, her musical ability was outstanding.  She also had a wry sense of humour and capacity to mimic that delighted us all, and captivated my father. 

As a six-year-old she was chosen to present the flowers to the Bishop during the confirmation ceremony.  As she came down the aisle, the bishop nudged the priest next to him and said “look at this.”  I remember this tickled Mom, and she often smiled at Cathy’s blue-eyed strategies but didn’t lose sight of the serious child within.  When Mom knew she was dying, she told me Dad loved her especially, but feared he wasn’t going to know how to give her the firm support she needed.  He didn’t.

Cathy described herself as “complicated.”  To me, she seemed to look at the world from just a slightly different point of view – a perspective I found fascinating, often wonderful, and sometimes baffling.  I don’t know anybody else who could make a successful fashion statement wearing a purple shoe on one foot and a green one on the other.  And I suspect it is part of her genius that I still don’t know whether she really had to count to find out how many 8ths there are in an inch.

Cathy was nine when Mom died and of all the children, I think her dying and the new regime established by Dad’s new wife was hardest of all for her.  I had entered the convent just eight months earlier, which meant that she had lost both her mother and her oldest sister who had in many ways been a second mother.  Bit by bit as her joy drained out of her, she replaced purple and green shoes with dark outfits, and serious anguish became her constant companion.  When she was in her early thirties, weeks after she and her husband had moved across the country to Arizona, Brian sat down beside the pool one morning and died. 

Eventually she asked us to call her Catherine, “the name my mother and father gave me.”  I think she was trying to cast off an old image, to step into a new maturity, but in some ways I felt I’d lost her forever.  I still love her with a special unique tenderness, and every once in a while, the old sense of fun glimmers through.  But I think mostly she is sad.  She tries with a painful earnestness to be good and kind and loving, but often asks for directions to understand what her sibs are saying, and I fear she lives with a sense of enduring failure.

Depression runs in our family.  Like so many others who suffer from it, I think Catherine pays a price of pain for the gift that can give so much happiness to others.

August 15, 2007

The family on the farm: Mary

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 5:54 am

My second sister and Bob’s twin was Mary.  Despite her position in the family where a lesser person may have been squashed, Mary was not a lesser person.  When Mary made up her mind, which she did regularly, she held on with tenacity. 

You couldn’t miss the fact that Mary had class and there was always an energy and exuberance in her life style.  From childhood she danced with  elegance, and excelled at sports.  By the time she was two, she was coordinating her clothes and shoes to match.  When her funds were limited, she chose beauty rather than food. 

What I still love best about Mary is her proud delight for the people she loved passionately and single-mindedly.  Despite our affection for each other, we were a  deadly competitive family in some ways, striving to excel in our own unique niches.  Mary stood out with her extravagant hopes for the rest of us.  Her most magnificent hopes were for Bob, her twin to whom she was fiercely loyal, and all her life she was a mother hen toward Dorothy, our youngest sister who was six when Mom died.

I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who thought I was so wonderful, who thought my gifts should propel me to the top of the world, and who so delighted in anything I accomplished.  She was implaccably opposed to my being a nun, because she thought I would be suffocated in a convent.  She reached that conclusion when she was ten.  She said she herself felt liberated when I left nine years later.

Mary died of breast cancer when she was 46.  I still miss her.  In fact, as I get older and appreciate her unique brand of caring more, I think I miss her more.

August 13, 2007

The family on the farm: Bob

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:36 pm

Although Bob was named after Robert Bellarmine, his sisters think he would have been better named after Blessed Martin de Porres, the Dominical Brother who worked among the poor and seemed to appear almost anywhere he was needed, sometimes by seemingly miraculous methods.   Bob has never claimed – nor have any of us ever remotely suggestesd – he possesses anything resembling miraculous powers.  But he is one for figuring out labour-saving devices, and takes a special delight in those that are just a little ingenious.   

Once Dad was suspicious that Bob, then about age seven, was going to bed with his pajamas on over his clothes in order to save dressing time in the morning.  He put on his most ferocious Claude look and summoned him from his bedroom.  But faced with Bob’s frantic attempts to hide his trousers, he collapsed laughing and fled helplessly calling “Jean, come here and deal with this.”  And it didn’t surprise anybody to discover that one year Bob bought a dozen “I’m sorry I forgot your birthday” cards in January, and sent them out randomly during the year.

I don’t know exactly how he did it, but somehow he managed to maintain a reputation of simple innocence while plotting more schemes than most of us.  Even when he got caught, he was never really in trouble.  When he was caught shooting dice in the church vestibule by a nun with a ferocious reputation, she sent a note home for Bob to give to Dad saying “now I’ve seen everything,” to which Dad replied “So have I.”  It ended there. 

After Mom died, and what was called the “New Regime” was installed, Bob’s teflon luck continued.  While his sisters were constantly upgraded for their lack of cleaning skills, poor cooking, and general carelessness, Bob was the son our new “mother” never had.  He was about ten when, thinking it was a pile of paper, he jumped into a newly-delivered silk lamp shade waiting on the floor for installation.  It was dismissed as a boyish mistake. 

This might seem like a cozy life, but Bob wasn’t always comfortable being the favourite.  Nobody said it or even thought it, but I think Bob often felt guilty about getting better treatment than his sisters.  Nobody wished he would get into trouble though. 

Even today, when Bob is coming, it’s special for homes he visits around the world.

August 12, 2007

The family on the farm: The twins

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:48 pm

18 months after Bernadette was born, my mother was once again in the maternity ward to give birth.  We were just getting to the top of the drive coming home from school when my granddad walked over from next door and said “You have a new brother.  And you have a new sister.”  It took a minute to figure out. 

As was the tradition in our family, the twins were given the names of holy people as examples of the kind of lives they should lead.  Bob was assigned to St. Robert Bellarmine, a cardinal whose committment to the Inquisition helped make it the vicious ordeal it was.  A more unlikely role model would have been hard to find.  Mary was given the name of the mother of Jesus, an equally ill-matched choice. 

But they managed to overcome these initial obstacles.  Twins each have an identity and personality of their own, but since they come in pairs, there is a value-added that two singles don’t have.  Tom and I immediately introduced them to the male-female definitions which we had concluded defined the men and women, probably for everybody in the whole world, but certainly in our immediate family.  By our gender identity rules, girls were Polish like my mother and inferior on most counts except cooking and cleaning to boys who were German like my father and ipso facto smarter.  This required that Bob be best at everything and learn everything first including using a spoon, tying his shoe lacess, and buttoning his shirt so the buttons matched the button holes all the way from the top to the bottom.  

I was already rebelling against our definition of unequal womanhood.  But having been unhappily informed some five years earlier than manhood was not an option for me, I set out to prove that girls were smarter (not just as smart, mind you, but smarter) than boys.  I taught Mary how to walk, to dress, to use a spoon, new words, even how to swim.  Tom furiously taught Bob everything he needed to know to win.  The only problem was that Mary refused to play.  Being a girl, she matured faster than her brother and learned almost everything first.  This, to her two-year-old mind, was a violation of the correct order of things.  Mary was not wont to put others in front of her.  Except Bob.  Bob was always, always, always first.  And so she pretended not to know things until Bob showed that he had learned “first.”

After many years, this strict code of appropriate gender behavior broke down among most of us.  Tom has decided that he’s more Polish than German, and I know I’m a lot more like my father than our rules said I was supposed to be.  

For myself, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about those aspects of womanhood I learned from my Catholic background.  Someday I will talk about not only the things about it I reject, but also about those things which have been valuable.  My marriage certainly would have been different without it.

August 4, 2007

The price of depression

Filed under: Depression and Autism,Family,Husband,Worries — theotheri @ 10:06 pm

The village where I live is shaken just now by the suicide of a young women who lived around the corner from us.  We were not well-acquainted, but I know she was attractive, in her twenties, vibrant, always with a cheerful smile.  She hanged herself.  Nobody seems to know why, but her boyfriend left a short time ago.  Perhaps that was the reason.  If it was, it can’t be the whole reason.  There must have been a deeper, longer depression of which this was the terrible climax.

Surprisingly, although the hopelessness of depression robs everything of joy, makes everything seem worthless, it is often hidden, a private face that the family sees and that the public never suspects.  Even a supremely successful professional  might at home be engulfed in irrational despair or make unreasonable demands of a family equally desperate to avoid the descent of darkness.  A depressive himself often uses alcohol to stay out of depression’s grip.  It is futile, because alcohol is in itself a depressive, but first it provides a short escape into euphoria.  Shopping for things one doesn’t need but desperately wants until one gets them home, binge eating, paranoia,  irrational bursts of anger, and many addictions are also often attempts to escape the deadly cloud of depression. 

It is hard to be serially depressed.  It is also immensely difficult to love and live with a depressive.  Just as depression takes different forms, so too its toll on others.   When my mother died and my father remarried, I saw for the first time watching his second wife that it was possible to love someone and yet not to blame oneself for their depression.  I don’t think my mother altogether understood this, and I suspect that blaming herself for my father’s unhappiness contributed to her early death.

I still struggle sometimes to keep myself separate from someone else’s depression.  Not to let it infect me with the same hopelessness, not to cast around desperately for some solution that will lift the cloud for them.  Sometimes I know when Peter is depressed, and I feel guilty, feeling in some irrational, inchoate way that it is my fault.  I try not to let Peter see this, because this guilt of mine is as irrational as his depression.

So we’ve learned and shared and loved.  And yet, it is still not always easy.  It’s been a challenge that occasionally I have felt I could have done without.  But – and this is the mystery – I know I needed it.  And chose it.

August 3, 2007

My brother Larry: paradoxically independent

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:37 pm

My fourth brother, Larry, was born in February 1945.  The year is significant because my father had been called up by the draft to join the Army still fighting World War II in both Europe and East Asia.  He was given an exemption, not because he had a family of five children to support, but because the fifth child was born crippled.  Larry was born with spina bifida, a malformation which paralyzed him from the waist down, but more critically, usually kills those born with it before they reach adolescence.   The opinion of the doctors was that such babies should be allowed to die through benign neglect.  I remember the expression on my parents faces as they got out of the car on the day they returned from the hospital having been given this advice.  They were ashen.  But there was never any question of their following it.

For six months Larry was kept in the children’s wing of the hospital where doctors expected his imminent death.  Larry had other ideas.  With grit that became a lifelong characteristic, he fought to live.   Then my parents brought him home.  If he is going to die, they said, let it be with the family to which he belongs.  By that time, Mom was pregnant again.  Larry needed more care than most babies, and each evening our aunt Tillie came by after her day teaching to give him some of the extra time my mother couldn’t.  He also needed special meals, and soon he began to have dinner at Gram’s every night too.

Larry first started to climb the stairs when he was about two.  I discovered him on the fifth step on the way up.  This didn’t seem safe to me, and I carried him down.  He didn’t say a word, but later I discovered him again half way up.  By afternoon, he’d climbed to the top, and after Tillie came home, insisted on making it up the steeper stairs at Gram’s.  I think I remember this so vividly because it’s such a representative example of the way Larry is.  He doesn’t say a lot:  he just keeps climbing the stairs.  If you take him down, he’ll just turn around and do it again.  He learned to walk with crutches, and spent more time in the hospital than the rest of us.  But mostly we took him for granted, and he stood up for himself.  When he was six, he started school with us at Holy Family, and we pulled him in a wagon to and from the bottom of the long drive where the school bus picked us up.  We didn’t think much of it.

Larry is probably the quietest of all of us so it takes time to discover how much knowledge is stored inside that brain of his and how independent his thinking can be.  Today, he lives alone in a house on the farm, drives a specially adapted car, and prepares his own food.  He has an unusual ear for music and worked for a while as a DJ for a classical radio program.  He later switched to work as a medical records technician until he retired. 

The doctors are still telling Larry he is an extraordinary case.   As I write this, he is 62 years old. 

July 28, 2007

The family on the farm: grandparents move into the other house

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 3:34 pm

Dad built the house we lived in on the seventy acres he bought in 1942.  But there were already two dwellings on the land, and in 1943, my grandparents and their daughter Tillie moved into one of the houses.  Unlike ours, it was an old house that had a wonderful dark wainscoting in the living room, and various unsavory creatures in the basement that occasionally climbed up the pipes for a swim in the bathtub or a slither around in the light.  It was a place that would remain a haven for as long as we lived at 677.

For us it was “Gram’s House,” one of the magic places where we learned to love Gam’s German cheesecake and dumplings and apple strudel, where she gave us piano lessons, and where we celebrated Christmas Eve.  And each of us had one night a week that was our special day to have dinner there.

Gram originally came from Wisconsin, where her family had immigrated a generation earlier from the same town in Bavaria where our grandfather was also born, although they met in America.  He had studied at various German conservatories but at the age of 27 left Bavaria because he liked women too much to accept the celibate life that had been chosen for him.  Gram always called him “Nogi,” after some Japanese general, but none of us every knew why.  We called him “Jaj” – our Polish term for grandfather we learned from my mother. 

From comments I only half understood at the time, I later suspected our grandfather was both a gifted musician and a charming rogue.  I think more than once the family may have slipped out of town at night, leaving their debts behind.  It may explain part of Dad’s strong sense of responsibility towards taking care of his mother and sister.

Both Gram and Jaj died many years later of polycythemia, a rare blood disease that also eventually killed my father and his brother, Norbert.  We thought at first it was inherited, but Norbert believed it was a result of a toxic dump close to the home where they lived for a while in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

July 26, 2007

Jack: my brother the lawyer

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 8:32 pm

My third brother, Jack, was born when I was three.  I’d been hoping for a sister, thinking that two brothers met my needs sufficiently for male competition.   But from practically the day he was born, Jack was one of the cutest little kids I’ve ever seen in my life.  He was a darling who people instinctively wanted to hug.  I always thought of him as being the sunniest of all my sibs, and indeed he seems to have been unaware of much of the trauma that swept through the house after my mother died and Dad remarried.

This probably made it possible for Jack to become a lawyer and join Dad in his legal practice.  He married Mimi, whose brothers and sisters had been in school with each of us and they eventually moved with their four children into the property where we had grown up.  It saved the homestead for all of us, and they have always made us welcome to return – for weddings, funerals, and various excuses we occasionally concoct for family celebrations.

Jack is the only one of my sibs who could have raised a family on the old farm without indoctrinating them with the conflicts of the earlier generation.  But he and Mimi did, and I have always been amazed by the sheer cheerful wholesomeness of his children – and now the many grandchildren.  Part of the farm has been sold and is now a shopping mall.  But the old property with three homes and as many generations still overlooks the lake and is screened by the trees planted over half a century ago. 

I guess Jack never felt he had to get away from Ohio.  I enjoy him a lot and find him easy to be with.  It is a surprise because in some ways he is living a life that, by the time I was six, I was determined to escape.

July 23, 2007

The family on the farm: all of us

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 4:10 pm

I seem able to rummage about in my past for only so long, and then like a desperate swimmer coming up for air, feel the need to re-emerge into the present.  So the story of the family on the farm in which I grew up will no doubt continue to lurch ahead with unpredictable stops and sidelines.  Eventually I will describe everyone. 

“Everyone” is a lot of people.  I grew up with five brothers and four sisters, and my grandmother, grandfather, and their unmarried daughter Tillie lived down the road.  Then there was my father’s best friend, Father Basil, and Phil, the Black man who also lived on the property with his wife and who worked the farm.  After my mother died, my father remarried our aunt, the widowed wife of my mother’s brother who already had four daughters.  So these cousins were added to our family list. 

It would make a pretty substantial tv cast. Indeed, there were times when we felt like another version of “Little Women,” or “Little House on the Prairie.”  The title I always wished we could appropriate though was “Up the Down Staircase.”  It sort of catches the crazy, often nuerotic, intensity of life at 677, – the number of the post office route where the mail box perched on the edge of the road leading to the farm and our house on the hill.

July 20, 2007

The family on the farm: my brother Tom

Filed under: Family,Growing Up,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 7:46 pm

Despite my original plan devised at the age of seven to escape to New York City, at the age of eighteen I went into the convent instead, joining the Maryknoll missionary sisters.  Before I explain how such a drastic redirection occurred, I will describe my brothers and sisters.  There were ten of us altogether, so it will take a few postings to accomplish this.

Tom is my older brother by a year.  Mostly that made us equals.  I respected his areas of male competence and I was granted superiority in everything else.  He loved the fields and was intrinsically a much more gifted farmer than my father.  He was also a good mechanic.  At about the age of 12 he had the tractor apart in the garage.  I was appalled at what looked to me like an act of methodical terrorism, but Tom, unperturbed, bit by bit put it back together, and to my astonishment it worked.  After that, it never occurred to me to try to fix things for myself.  If something was broken, Tom would be able to figure out how to fix it if anyone other than God could make it work again. 

Tom and I were acknowledged authorities in the family after Mom and Dad, and our word was law with our younger brothers and sisters.  The defense “Terry said I could do it,” worked just as well as “Mom said…”  Tom says he knows women are as smart as men because I was smarter than he was.  That make him a pretty fantastic brother for a sister to have, though I might not have fully appreciated it at the time.  I didn’t know I was smart;  I just thought I knew more than most everybody else because, along with Tom, I was the oldest.  But I did know we worked together to try to raise parents fit for the modern world.  It was a tough battle, but things were working out pretty well until I entered the convent, and then Mom died and the whole project fell tragically apart. 

If I wanted to go to New York, Tom wanted to buy a farm in Alaska.  In the end, he became an mechanical engineer rather than a farmer, and worked for General Motors until he retired.  Now he and his wife hike, and kayak, and bicycle around the world.  They are on the road more often than they are at home.  His children are the most important things in the world to him, but we still discuss the philosphical issues of life and love.  Is there a God, does the Roman Catholic Church more harm or good, what’s the purpose of life, and all the other imponderables and unanswerables we spent so many hours discussing as children around the dinner table.

July 17, 2007

The fascination of an unachievable man

Filed under: Depression and Autism,Family,Growing Up,Husband — theotheri @ 3:26 pm

I described how I met the man to whom I am now married in my June 15th post.  We have been living together for more than half my life now, and he has become the most important and significant man I have ever loved.  As we have survived, exalted, triumphed, and despaired over the inevitable ups and downs for thirty five years, I have wondered about the glue that has held us together through it all.

Peter is immensely kind, exceptionally intelligent, highly educated, capable of expending baffingly amounts of energy and determination – and subject to swings of depression that can fill me – and undoubtedly him – with despair.   I continue to find him fascinating.  Not with, perhaps, quite the same driven excitement that I felt when I first met him, but I still love to talk to him, to be surprised by his alternative take on life.  He is without doubt the best – if not the easiest – thing that has ever happened to me.

For many years, I thought that, because of my father, I had confused depression with intelligence the way some women confuse abuse with strength in men.  But it’s more devilishly complicated than that.  As some women are attracted to married men because they are unattainable, I’m attracted to intelligent depression.

I am attracted to intelligent depressives because they are so hard to please, and because happines eludes them.  I am attracted only to men who think I am something quite out of the ordinary, and however kind and sensitive depressive men are, I always sense an unmet yearning.  My impulse is to say “I am that special person you are looking for;  I understand your longings, your exceptional gifts;  I can love you enough.” 

So I didn’t stumble accidentally after all into marrying someone who was an intelligent depressive.  I chose it, even though I may not have understood myself in the choosing.  I doubt that I have changed.  I’m still fascinated by that enchanting deception.

Anyone who has lived with a someone struggling with depression knows how hard it is.  Sometimes it feels simply impossible to overcome the bleak despair engulfing someone’s whole view of life.  It is not rational, even though it might be triggered by real tragedy.  It is not voluntary, though there are sometimes controllable factors like drink and nutrition and exercise and medication that effect it.  It demands strength from anyone living with a depressive.  Or at least it has made demands on me that have pushed me to greater maturity and I hope greater gentleness.

I never once talked to her about it, but the person – besides Peter – who is probably most responsible for my not walking out of my marriage during its darkest days was my father’s second wife.  I think my own mother blamed herself for my father’s unhappiness.  Mary never did.  I watched how she lived with my father.  Though at times I thought she was a witch incarnate in relation to my brothers and sisters after Mom died, she was also the best role model as a wife I ever had. 

July 11, 2007

Men whom I have loved

Although in retrospect, I can see that I have always been pretty independent, I have never shared the anger of so many feminists against men.   Despite society’s inequalities and unfairness, in general, I enjoy men.  They have been my brothers, my friends, my colleagues, my neighbours.  I don’t walk around resenting them.  (I am not talking about men who think they own their women and have a right to punish them as if they were lesser beings.  That is an injustice of such magnitutde that I am left gagging in revulsion and rage.) 

There are four men, in particular, whom I have loved with passion.  Not all with an explicit sexual passion but with a depth of feeling that reached to the core of my being.  The first was my father.  I adored him and I was his favourite.  He was an exceptionally intelligent, educated, highly-principled man who also suffered from depression.  He made depression look so reasonable, and became depressed about such truly great issues, that I was in my twenties before I realized that depression was not the only intelligent response to life, and that my father actually suffered from a clinical disease.  Although he loved us without question, Dad more or less communicated that he thought his children were failures.  I see now that was part of his depression and his inability to believe he could ever accomplish anything of great value, including raising children who were successful. 

I felt an immense burden to make him happy.  Although he never said so, I knew Dad would be terribly proud if I became a nun, and that was certainly one of the reasons why I entered the convent.  By the same token, leaving the convent and then getting married to a divorced man were steps out of childhood and into an independent adulthood. 

My father’s last request to me when we both knew he was dying was that I ask my husband to seek an annullment from the Roman Catholic Church for his first marriage so that we could be married by a Catholic priest.  I said no, that it had been a real marriage for my husband, and I would not ask him to pretend that it wasn’t.  Besides, at that point I had already left the church and most of its doctrine behind.

I was a nun when I met – and fell passionately in love with  – the second man whom I loved with what felt like my whole being.  His story is for tomorrow’s post.

July 10, 2007

And the greatest of these – is laughter?

St. Paul said there was faith, hope, and charity, and the greatest of these is charity.  “Charity” thunders down the centuries, echoing with great works and towering sacrifice.  It is filled alternatively with some fair dose of hypocrisy mixed with the heroics most of us, thankfully, are not called on to exercise on most days.  More modern Biblical translations have used the word “love” instead of charity, but today the term love often means sexual passion and romance and again something quite apart from the humdrum of everyday.

So what about kindness and laughter instead?  Kindness as insight and caring and affection and everyday kind of comfortable reliability.  Kindness that laughs and doesn’t make everything too terribly important.

Last week, a Maryknoll missionary priest whom we called Father Don, and whom our family had known since we were children died.  We have been remembering that kind of kindness and laughter.  In 1959 my mother died quite quickly of cancer at the age of 48 leaving her husband with ten children between 6 and 19 years of age.  My father remarried within months, but it was an adjustment for the kids that never got easy.  My littlest sister reminded me of Father Don’s simple laughter when mostly there was sadness.

Father Don was based in Guatemala, and we only saw him every couple of years.  But when he came to the house, it was always magic.  Above all I remember “Father Don’s Song.”  Sitting at the piano, he would play only 2 notes in a repetitive rhythm of one, two-two, one, two-two, one, two-two, one, two–two (one being the lower note).  Once the rhythm is established, one starts singing “ahhh” in a dirge-like chant, designed to make young children giggle.  As soon as somebody starts to laugh, the music is stopped with an explanation of just how serious this song is to all Guatemalans everywhere and would everyone please show a little respect.  And so we straightened our faces and held our breaths while he started again, only to burst into hysterics before he got more than one or two notes out of his mouth.”

I doubt Don ever had any idea of the joy and happiness he gave to us in those dark abandoned days.

July 9, 2007

A nun’s very Catholic family

We grew up in a very very Catholic family.  In fact, we were super-Catholics, and were burdened with the belief that we were each chosen to do something very great with our lives.  So we thought pretty highly of ourselves, and thought we were a moral cut above the average sinner.  My father believed that the greatest thing any of his children could achieve was to become saints.  Sanctity became our highest goal.

 On the wall of the kitchen was a Christian calendar listing the feast being celebrated on each particular day.  Each one of us were named after a Catholic saint who was held up as our special example, and whose feast day was celebrated on the par with birthdays.  I was named after St. Therese of Liseaux, the “Little Flower” who became a cloistered nun and died in her early twenties, having celebrated the value of “little things.”  I never liked being named after her.  My plans for myself were never little. 

Every night the family gathered after dinner to say the family rosary together.  Mom was often pregnant and was the only one permitted to sit during this ritual.  The rest of us sprawled in what we called kneeling, positions that were rather surprisingly tolerated by a otherwise pretty strict parenting code.  During the forty days of Lent preceeding Easter, we each engaged in a series of public resolutions like abstaining from candy or parties or listening to our favourite loud music.  At Easter, Dad hid what he called an Alleluia Egg, pure white with Alleluia printed across its face in yellow food coloring.  Whoever found it earned a prize.  Mostly it was hard to find.  Once it was in the telephone (it was eventually found by the telephone repairman who was called in when the phone wouldn’t work), another time in the dust bag of the vacuum.  And there were first Communions and Confirmations, baptisms, and all the rituals of the Catholic year.

I thought all Catholic families were more or less like us.   But there was one critical difference between us and most other Catholic families.  For all his commitment, Dad wasn’t afraid to teach us how to ask questions, and to challenge religious authority.  I was an expert on the fine nuances of papal infallibility, and on just when the pope couldn’t be wrong, and the much larger arena when his view should merely be respected if not accepted.  This unsubmissive attitude, this default setting of disbelief, if you will,  which I learned at home, was not at all what most Catholics were like.  It certainly was not what was expected of me in the convent.   

July 6, 2007

The dream of the nun’s father

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 4:48 pm

To describe the world I grew up in, I think I have to start with my father, Claude.  He was the one who had the dream, and in 1941 convinced my mother, Jean, to move with me and my brother Tom onto seventy wild acres in a town called Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.  Dad was a lawyer and went into the city everyday except Sunday, leaving Mom, who was at heart a city girl, to worry about the developing farm and my father’s dream.

I think Mom was often lonely on the farm, and moved because Dad had a vision influenced by Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker.  I think he believed that growing food and raising livestock was untainted and that his ten children would be less influenced by the alluring seductions of materialism if we grew up surrounded by nature.  So he built a house that gradually got bigger as his family needed more bedrooms.   And although he never became a farmer – indeed had absolutely no talent at it – he and Mom worked hard at creating an idyllic life style for us. 

The swamp was dammed and the resulting lake stocked with fish.  He built a beach and a tennis court, and planted fields of hay that my brothers and neighboring farmers cut and bound into bales each summer.  Cows grazed in the fields and pigs grew fat in the pens.  After the war, he got some left-over quanset huts, and I was about three when the first chicks arrived.  Eventually  hens laid eggs for our breakfasts until they were killed for the evening table.  We picked apples and pears from our trees, strawberries and asparagus from the garden, and ate fish from the pond.  In winter we skated on it, in the summer we competed in swimming across the five acres, before collapsing on the dock made of boards strapped across six empty oil barrels that kept it afloat.

The dream had a good number of unscripted events.  My brother and I got caught in the mud where I thought I was going to sink into China which I’d been told lay beneath my feet.  The fields caught on fire, ruining the crops but giving the local fire department a lot of practice.  My brothers had the misfortune of turning the tractor over in the fields several times and twice drove it into the pond.  The cows sometimes bloated and died, lightning hit the farm buildings, and my mother lived in constant fear that one of her children would drown in the lake.  We were taught how to swim at a young age, and then life-saving skills. 

The farm was part of the dream.  I adored my father but I didn’t like living on a farm.  By the time I was six, I was plotting how to escape to New York City.   In the next posts I will try to explain how I ended up a nun instead. 

June 14, 2007

A short list of crises

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Family,Husband,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:20 pm

I was talking to my sister Catherine yesterday and she got me laughing at myself when I told her I’d managed to make a mini-crisis out of my new vision after cataract surgery.   “Oh my god, what am I going to do now?  I’ve had cataract surgery and now I can see everything better than I ever have before.  This is a terrible problem.”    Almost all of us in the family have a capacity for this navel-gazing angst, and I am not even the worst.  She suggested we make a list of possible crises that only members of our family could be cajolled into taking seriously.   Of course, not to be included is anything that really qualifies for serious angst – like Mom dying at the age of 48 leaving behind ten children under the age of 19.  Or like my sister dying at 46 of breast cancer, or of C’s own husband dropping dead two weeks after they’d moved to Arizona.  Not like my brother Larry who has never been able to walk without crutches.  Not like broken marriages or child abuse or mental illness.  Not like Iraq or Palestine or Darfur.  We are looking for seriously ridiculous angst here.

I was prepared to make this list of crises only our family could appreciate today, but we woke up this morning to discover that Peter’s computer had crashed sometime during the night.  This is no ordinary crash, the kind you get over by rebooting.  As I write it is now mid-afternoon, and he is stripping the computer down to the factory settings.  You probably know what this means.  Especially since he’s the webmaster for a couple of sites, one of which is an educational website that is in the midst of its summer session with all the late registrations and changes this entails.

So the list of faux crises will have to wait until a different day.  Computer crashes aren’t mega-tragedies, but it could mean losing all the computer documents and installing all the software again.  It might mean a new computer.   

I don’t think the time has quite come for me to waltz into Peter’s study and joke about it.  Somehow I don’t think it will help at all.

May 27, 2007

Rules of miscommunication

Filed under: Family,The English,Worries — theotheri @ 1:35 pm

I grew up in a large family in which, until my mother died leaving ten children between 6 and 20 years old, dinner discussions were often robust.  Especially on Saturdays, when Father Basil came to dinner and he and Dad carried on learned debates about the state of the world.  Father Basil was an old school friend of Dad’s, who became a Catholic priest and a history professor at the university.  I learned how to think from these Saturday night dinners.  Above all, I think I learned to take the arguments of the opposition seriously by trying to argue their side against my own.  It’s a practice I’ve tried to continue.

But families change, and we have discovered that the rules of argument and communication are not the same for every family in the next generation.  Our respect – even liking – for each other came perilously close to breaking down completely when we tried to discuss abortion in a heated email exchange.  We now have a tacit agreement to avoid any subject on which the Catholic Church takes a stand.  Humour must also be used with care, as we do not agree about what is legitimate.  Living here in England,  my use of humour has become potentially explosive.  Which I’m sorry about, because much of English humour in my opinion is often the funniest and cleverest in the world.

Several weeks ago I sent an email to our family listserve asking if their opinions about Iraq had changed as mine have over the last few years.  Criticizing President Bush, up to this point, has been off-limits because of his support for anti-abortion and anti-gay legislation, so I wasn’t sure if Iraq could get through the barrier.  So far the discussion has been going forward without seeming to threaten the fault lines of our family structure. 

It’s amazing how difficult it is to respect someone with whom you fundamentally disagree.  I suspect each of us is working on suppressing epithets like “stupid,” “going to hell,” “bigoted,” and “arrogant.”  My own feeling is that if a family like ours can’t learn to communicate with each about important issues, we have little to suggest to the Israelis and Palestinians, the Shias and Sunnis, the Christians and Muslims, even the Catholics and Protestants.   In fact, Northern Ireland, after 35 years, just might be able to teach us something.

May 15, 2007

Potential inhabitants of hell

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Family,Growing Old — theotheri @ 1:02 pm

We’ve had guests for almost two weeks, and it was with a kind of guilty relief that we bid farewell to the last one this evening.  It would be gratifying to be able to provide outrageous descriptions of either couple as our Guests from Hell, but they were considerate and didn’t need to be entertained 24/7.   They even helped with the dishes and actually facilitated the process rather than merely demonstrating an ostentatious show of generosity by getting in the way.  

Peter was utterly charming, but I know him too well to have believed he was enjoying himself as much as his courtesy impelled him to pretend.  We did try hard not to qualify as Hosts from Hell, but the older I get, the more effort entertaining seems to require.  I enjoy people around for short bursts but then I want to get back to my own life and an uninterrupted routine.  As I was growing up, I remember going to my room and sitting with a book for hours while my younger brothers and sisters waited patiently outside my door until I took them swimming or baked cookies with them or did whatever I had promised on the day.   It amazes me now that, unperturbed, I could let them wait there for hours.

My second cataract surgery is scheduled for tomorrow.  Even if it fails completely, my life adjustment will be small because I know I will still be able to read.  So I will try mightily not to be a Patient from Hell. 

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