Grandparents

Some might call it morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by dead people. . . and nearly dead people, which is how I viewed my dad’s parents when I was growing up. In truth, they weren’t (much) older than my mom’s parents, but where there was liveliness and humor and tenderness on the one side — all obvious signs that Papa Joe and Nana May (my mom’s parents) were of this world, Nana Morrissey and her perpetually scowling partner Gama were stern, dull, and disapproving. I grew up believing that Nana May and Papa Joe were the kinds of grandparents that one could more easily love and want to be around, to nestle (maybe) in their laps, and that Nana M and Gama were unhappy people who were born old and whose only concern was that we children not touch any of the fragile furnishings (and they were ALL fragile) in their tiny, old-fashioned home that perched — cramped and awkward — on a rocky ledge uphill from the Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford. As a child, how freely one could run around and get dirty, maybe even break things (and each other) were immensely important activities, and our degree of freedom to do so defined how we adjudged the character of our four grandparents. It was unfair and shortsighted, but that’s how children are.

Recently I acquired (from that same tiny house on the rocky ledge) a cache of archival collections and loose photos that belonged to my ancient Aunt Ginny, my dad’s only sibling. She lived to 103 years old and displayed an enduring reverence for “the family record”, maybe a by-product of her long career as an attorney. Taken together, the photos tell a story that I never knew, one that upends (in a most meaningful way) my conclusions about my Medford grandparents.

“Circus Day” (May 3, 1959)

“Circus Day” in May 1959 was one of those occasions for which there are several photos of Kevin, Tom, Chris, and me. We’re all spit-polish, scrubby-clean top to bottom, ready for Aunt Ginny to widen our country-dwelling horizons by treating us to The Greatest Show on Earth, an annual extravaganza held at Boston Garden. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus was 88 years old in 1959. I was a little over three years old, the baby of the family. (For nearly five years I was able to enjoy that vaunted status until the second half of the family began to arrive.)  In at least three of the snapshots, I’m leaning cozily into my Nana M and she’s got a protective (one might say “loving”) arm around me. To me, the gesture looks natural. As an adult with a lifetime of opportunity to reshape the narrative, could I really have had it all wrong? Were Nana M. and Gama just a typical couple of a certain age and time period, grandparents whose lives ran parallel to but distant from our other set? 

And so I begin to remember things. 

My favorite birthday cake is — and always has been — “Hershey’s Chocolate Town Special Cake” with “7-Minute (Boiled) Frosting”. Although I can’t remember how established it was as a tradition, Nana M. began making it for me for my birthday when I was very young. Each year when she presented it, I was dazzled by its exquisite, snow-white beauty and, of course, would be nearly insensible with joy as I shoveled it into my mouth. Whenever I make the same cake, I use Nana M’s magnificent creation as my benchmark, striving to achieve a rich, moist cake texture and swirly snowdrift frosting perfection that I recall her cakes having. And I can’t help but conclude that she made that cake. . . for me. . .  with love and pride. 

It seems that I never knew my Medford grandparents at all. 

Family Research — The Stories That Really Matter

It’s a simple truth that anyone doing serious family research will — at some point — hit a brick wall. The more obdurate that wall, the more determined we are to surmount it. Given the ease with which we can obtain contemporary information about people, it vexes us that with a little earnest effort we can’t find out all we’d like to know about our ancestors. Since we Morrisseys descend nearly entirely from Irish forbears who left the Isle in the period extending from the Famine (latter half of the 1840’s) up through the 1880’s, with few exceptions our ability to confirm lineage beyond the ancestors who immigrated is hampered by several factors, such as:

  • Vague references by those who settled here as to their home of origin. In most cases, we have the county name only (if that).
  • Inconsistency in the self-reporting as to year of birth, especially on census records and death records, but also marriage records. Rather than assume that the variance was born of suspicion and distrust, the inconsistencies are most likely attributable to their own uncertainty about their birth — bear in mind that in the 19th century and earlier, knowing precise dates was unimportant (unless you were Irish and neglected to register a birth within a required time period, in which case you would simply alter the authentic date to comply with the law.) Family bibles have been perhaps the most reliable records of births (or more importantly, baptisms). . . if the researcher has access to them.
  • Early census records (19th century) for Ireland were destroyed in the fire of 1922 at the Public Records Office. As a “census substitute”, Griffith’s Valuations is the go-to, but despite its voluminous listings of tenancies, teased out by townland, barony, parish, and county; it has severe limitations. (A more thorough examination would be better suited in a separate essay.)
  • Civil registration for births, marriages, and deaths in Ireland did not begin until 1864. Wouldn’t you know that most of the ancestors for whom the trail runs cold is right before that year — it inevitably seems that the 1850’s is the period of time that we most need to examine? For Roman Catholics (as nearly all our ancestors seem to have been), having the name of the diocese (as well as a fair idea of year) is crucial if we want to do a work-around and establish dates and confirm family connections. (Even here, the records are incomplete, especially regarding burial information — fewer than half the parishes kept burial information prior to 1900.)

When we pause to consider the driving force behind our research, it seems we are most motivated by our curiosity about our own part in the ongoing narrative — why am I dreamer, for example? Do I get that from my dad? And, in turn, where did he get it from? Is Margaret’s (or Michaela’s) widow’s peak a genetic trait inherited from Gama’s family? Is Tom’s intensity something passed down from the Morrissey side of the family? (They were, it seemed, a very competitive and intense lot.) Surrounded as we are by blue or green-eyed siblings, Bobby and I have brown eyes — are they a Murphy characteristic? And, let us not overlook shortness — is that from the Gildeas or the Morrisseys? (The Murphys — at least the women — were on the tall side, but Annie Mulhern — Papa Joe’s mother — was purportedly a “very tiny lady”.) Following are some of the questions to which we are always seeking answers in our researching of ancestors:

  • What did they look like?
  • What types of personalities did they have?
  • Did they get along with each other? And with others?
  • Did they have any health issues?
  • What types of livelihood did they have? (And how much of that was by choice or through coercion?)
  • What was their academic life like? (Achievers? Underachievers? Smart? Lazy? The educator part of me would want, furthermore, to tease out multiple intelligences.)
  • What did they do in their spare time? What were they passionate about? (Sports, social or political causes, travel, The Church, etc.)
  • What should each one be remembered for? (I always am most moved by the ones who would otherwise be forgotten over time — the ones who strayed or disappeared. . . or were institutionalized, and the ones who never had their own children. Who can assure their legacies? Who will perpetuate their memory?)

Fortune Favors the Bold

I recently went shopping with a friend at a nearby antique market, and while we meandered through the vast indoor space — a converted mill building alongside the North Canal in Lawrence (off-shoot of the Merrimack River), we kept up a running conversation. At one point, we both agreed that we were ideal companions in that particular endeavor. Both of us have a casual approach, not in the least like how her husband undertakes the task, nor how my husband used to — each can (or could) spend up to an hour in one nook, closely examining every piece. When my husband George was alive we enjoyed our antique shop adventures immensely, but it always was the case that as soon as we entered the door, we’d part ways. Inevitably, he would emerge with something amazing, and I would be spending my money on something that before too long would end up in a Goodwill bin. I just don’t have the eye for spotting treasures; either that, or I’m too impulsive. . . or impatient. . . or lazy. Maybe I’m all those.

Every once in a while, however, I’m inspired to be different. I want to be that person who can while away an hour or two in an antique shop (or an entire morning at a fair), inspecting countless pieces of recycled merchandise, moving some aside to reach for the hidden gems. Just as gratifying would be the casual conversations that can be struck up with knowledgeable (and quirky) vendors, especially the ones who get excited when you’re curious about an item’s history or backstory. (Having lived more or less in the shadow of my much more social and outspoken partner, let me just say it’s a slow process learning to position myself center-front on that same stage where for decades I occupied a position slightly behind George. . . right where I was comfortable.)

Bembe and Yoselín rocking a Cuban son

In most rooms of my house there is at least one of George’s antique finds. I find I’m less able to part with the unique, one-of-a-kind vintage and antique curiosities that reside politely — in some cases joyously entertaining — on shelves. One of my favorites is a pair of folksy-looking Cuban musicians, hand-carved and depicted in a stylized manner. They’re an exuberant couple with posable bodies. The man is playing the güiro, the woman — bongos, and both are singing. Every so often, in order to fully appreciate their vitality, I reposition their arms or their heads or their feet. I’m not likely to ever part with my Cuban pair because their most recent story — the only chapter I’ll ever know — fills me with my own version of joy. On one of our antique adventures, George and I found ourselves somewhere downeast in Maine. As we typically did, we entered an antique shop together and immediately parted company. My interests tend to lean toward old textiles, sewing machines, 60’s lunchboxes, books, and 19th century photos. George’s particular interests were tools, toys, bottles, and anything he thought I would like. After about 30 minutes George appeared at my side and silently handed me the pair of figurines. He knew I would love them, and maybe imagined that I would add them to the decor in my Spanish classroom. Not for a moment would I entertain such a thought — I wanted them just for myself. It didn’t surprise me at all, either, that he had found them in a part of the shop that I had already breezed by.

Over the years, I feel I’ve come to know Yoselin and Bembe quite well. (Yes, I’ve named my high-spirited, posable Cuban musicians.) Like most people, I’ve formed an attachment to a possession that obviously has only the slightest of monetary value. It must be said, though, that whenever we enter an antique shop or attend a fair or (especially) a flea market, we entertain a hope that we’ll find a hidden gem. Yoselín and Bembe are enough of a treasure for me, but this morning I read in Smithsonian about a woman who really hit the jackpot. . . in a Goodwill store, of all places. For the price of $35 (if you shop at Goodwill, you understand that to be top dollar), Laura Young emerged with a very heavy but cool marble bust that she knew would look perfect in her hall entryway. Young isn’t a complete novice — she trades in antiques, so she knew she was on the better end of the transaction.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat

The 2,000 year-old story began with some famous Roman commander or emperor’s son or son of a disgruntled statesman (good guy, bad guy — it’s hard to know with certainty). In death, all these guys are elevated anyway, whether in status or as blocks of marble shaped into beautiful, proud heads and placed on a pedestal. . . literally (or, at least their likenesses are. . . literally).

Whoever was being represented by the sculpture, its beauty and value were appreciated (many centuries later) by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made it a part of his permanent collection, housed in the newly constructed Pompeiianum Museum in Aschaffenburg, Germany. One hundred years would pass uneventfully until very eventfully World War II happened, and the Allies bombed the Pompeiianum. The shame is made greater by the fact that looting then took place by the Allies. One way or another, the stolen head made its way to the United States where it remained a secret for nearly eighty years. And now, the real story is as much about our curiosity about the moron in Texas who dropped it off at a Goodwill recycling center as it is about where it has been for eighty years.

There’s a lesson here, and I don’t think it’s caveat emptor. Perhaps caveat donator (“donor beware”) better captures the moral. Also, bona quarentibus (which, if I’m not totally making up my own form of Latin, means “Good things come to those who seek.”)

Read Smithsonian’s article : “Ancient Roman Sculpture Likely Looted During WWII Turns Up at Texas Goodwill”

Canine Boot Camp

It occurs to me that I haven’t supplied my followers with any canine updates of late. One can safely assume the reason for that is that the critters have been up to no good. Or, at least that statement applies to wonder dog #2 — Bowie.

Here’s how things stand with my vertically challenged bundles of vexation. Recently, I decided to sort out my problem of dog walking. If I were to distill their unruliness down to its most basic, it stems from their awareness that I’m not the one in charge, and the problem manifests most obviously when I walk them together.

It plays out this way: a moving speck in the distance is determined to be a clear and present danger. Typically, Mona will be the first to observe its presence, and announce by bouncing up and down and woofing. Bowie, before he has even processed this impending peril, lunges at Mona as if to say, Goddammit, can’t you just once let ME be the one who notices it first and I’ve got this — I don’t need your help in guarding my family. Mona responds by snapping back at him, and it all devolves quite quickly. I tighten up the leashes and with arms outstretched to the side, pull the whirling dervishes apart. I walk by the typically well-behaved (large) dog and its owner with an embarrassed sorry, and pick up my pace to distance myself from yet another example of my ineptitude.

“They need to understand that they don’t get to call the shots — you do,” the trainer Katie pointed out to me when I brought them for an “assessment” about a month ago, shortly after I took out an equity line of credit to pay for a two-week boot camp. . . for both of them. . . so that they can learn to behave in a socially-acceptable manner when out in public. Or when there’s a Door Dash delivery. Or when the FedEx truck barrels down our street. Or when Beverly (my new 82-year old Historical Society friend) knocks on the door (because her eyesight is so poor she can’t see the doorbell, which is entirely fine with me so I don’t point it out to her because. . . well. . . that would just be way worse.)

As part of my pups’ boot camp package, I was subjected to my own mini-training, and I must say that I derived great benefit from the experience. I arrived on a rainy morning with both dogs and was instantly agog at the facility’s luxurious accommodations. For starters, as I rolled along the undulating driveway past the various fenced sections (including what appeared to be residual evidence of an orchard or just pleasantly positioned apple trees), the upscale arrangement of living quarters and training yards cleared up any lingering questions I had about the eye-popping cost of the program. Bowie, Mona and I then spent close to two hours learning the new rules — namely, that I am the new sheriff in town.

I can’t speak for my shaggy trainees — I suspect that the under-breath mutterings emanating from the back seat as we rode home were comments such as WTF and Shit, the party’s over, but I left that day with renewed confidence. I was excited to try out my new skills.

For the past few weeks I have dutifully honored the recommendations that the trainer made at our collective pre-boot camp training session. The biggest change to our routine is that I walk Bowie and Mona separately. It creates two very tense moments each morning, given that I have to leave one dog behind when I head out the door for the daily walk. I feel awful. . . TWICE! But the huge upside is that I have been able to walk by other dogs without incident. No barking. No lunging. No need for an embarrassed sorry. It is a blessed phenomenon. I hope it lasts.

And now, as I contemplate all the ways I can enjoy my two-week stretch of freedom — travel down the coast to visit family and/or old friends, book a flight to Oregon to see my daughter, take several day trips (to museums, antique shops, libraries, and historical sites), take walks alone — I’m strangely battling feelings of guilt. When Katie explained that they have a no-nonsense “no contact” policy for the entire two weeks of boot camp, I reacted with a pssshhh, no problem. But I find that I’m already dreading that moment when I drop them off; I know I’m going to feel lonely without the constant annoyance of Bowie’s stealing my books and chewing on the corners, his streaking from one end of the house to the other when the FedEx truck arrives. I’m also worried about Mona’s timid demeanor — what if they take too heavy a hand with her when they “correct” her? She’s delicate. I imagine I’ll be overly “clear” with the staff when I deposit them at the beginning of their stint. In the end, this is what I can offer: I may be a perennial novitiate as a dog owner — I don’t always know how to behave when I take them among other people or dogs, but I won’t be faulted for my understanding of their personalities. As a dog owner, with me there’s a long learning curve. Please be patient.

Sentenced to The Chair

(This story first appeared in Scosche of Class some years ago, but has been expanded upon to include additional characters in my life.)

It may not be the very least favorite place in my world, but it comes pretty darn close. This morning was my scheduled six-month check-up/cleaning, and I was prepared for the usual tsk-tsking about the sad condition of my mouthful of teeth. If you walked down the street and asked every person who looked to be at least 65 years old to open his or her mouth, you’d quickly determine that about 50% lacked dental insurance in the critical early years, maybe even later years. Until I was 14 years old, I only ever went to the dentist when my mouth was exploding with pain caused by a cavity. . . likely from eating too many Snickers. By the time I made it to “The Chair”, the dentist’s course of treatment nearly always was: pull it!

I really and truly tried to make amends starting as a teenager, but it may have been a case of too little, too late. I’ve only once heard, “Your teeth look good.” I think the dentist must either have, just prior, dipped his ladle in the well of happy gas; or had momentarily suffered a mental lapse, thinking he was still talking with the patient he had treated just before me. 

The hygienist never seems to come over to my side, either, on the issue — why can’t I just have fewer teeth? In fact, why is it necessary for humans to be assigned a set of, what is it, 36? Isn’t there some redundancy in that? Instead, what I hear is, you need to floss more, use a mouth rinse regularly, and stop eating Snickers bars as an apres-lunch (apres with that little backwards accent mark above the e) snack. No, the hygienist did NOT say that about the Snickers bars; she doesn’t know about them.*

Deep breathing gets me through most sittings, but it doesn’t always work, especially when my jaw is being pressed so hard that oxygen — one of my closest friends — concludes that there is no discernible pathway to my lungs. Oxygen takes the high road, and I’m left with the choice of either passing out or most inarticulately communicating that, “ahhhng url reeeee!” I choose life.

Dr. Tim is the cheeriest dentist that I’ve ever met, and I’ve had plenty. He typically begins our “sessions” by investigating my newest handbag, showing real interest in my handmade products, but — invariably — pointing out that he can find lovely alternatives for his wife at Marshall’s for a fraction of the price I advertise on my shop’s website. It always goes this way, and he remains ever unconvinced when I point out that custom, one-of-a-kind products come at a cost. He smiles, asks me how my business is doing, and then gets down to his business. I once asked him how he managed to always be so happy. (His resting face always features a smile.) He responded, “It’s easy; you just surround yourself with positive people.”  “But, how’s that possible in your line of work?” I wanted to know, because he obviously had to deal with unpleasant patients on occasion. “I just refer them elsewhere; problem solved.” And he smiled. 

There is a most wonderful up-side to the dental chair. . . after the initial twenty minutes or so of jackhammering to remove plaque buildup. One can become — by focusing on the fish mobile in the corner of the room — very reflective. It begins by noting the fascinating differences between those vividly painted fish. Before you know it, you’re drafting thank you notes, deciding on a new color palette for your living room, heck, you’re adding on an additional 500 square feet to your current home (which doesn’t need it, but instead needs some deep cleaning and a Marie Kondo-esque tidying regimen).

As woeful is the state of my mouth — as evidenced by the vast number of porcelain-crowned occupants, I feel profoundly blessed that I can — because of insurance — visit the dentist every six months for a cleaning. I’m reminded of an occasion several years ago in which my mother — a woman of great ingenuity and audacity, but inadequate dental insurance — took it upon her own initiative to solve a dental dilemma (and thus avoid a trip to “The Chair”). I had just arrived with my young daughters at the home she shared with two of her siblings on Manomet Bluffs and, as soon as the excitement and frenzy over our arrival had subsided, I detected something “off” about her face. Looking more closely, it became clear that her smile — ever broad and confident — had an altered appearance. “Mom, what’s going on with your mouth?” She exchanged a quick, knowing glance with my Aunt Marie, co-conspirator in all their screwy schemes, and the two burst out laughing. Mom took a fresh gulp of air, swallowed, then explained. As she launched into her story, her voice dipped. . . conspiratorially — it always did that when she began a narration, “Funny thing. A few days ago I lost my front tooth when I bit into a toffee bar. . .,” (she had dentures) “. . . so Re and I decided we could re-implant it just as easily as the dentist does, with a little Super-Glue. I didn’t notice until it was too late that it was crooked.” She smiled broadly, Aunt Re giggled, and the two of them were then lost in fits of uncontrolled laughter. Seeing Mom’s two lines of generally compliant little soldiers standing rigidly shoulder-to-shoulder at attention (north and south in her flexed mouth) but with one of their ranks keeling over, I was instantly reminded of those old cemeteries where the headstones sit all akilter.  I had to look away.

In any event, and despite all the efforts to rinse and spit and wipe with crinkly bib, I leave the dentist’s office with a face reddened from exertion, and with that gritty feeling still in my mouth. I’m confident, however, that everyone I acknowledge with my exaggeratedly wide, teeth-baring smile will observe how white and beautiful my teeth are. And with all that time in the chair to reflect and sort things out, I cannot help but think: isn’t life grand?! So what if next month I have to return to have my cracked molar “assessed”? That white-knuckled ride is a whole month away.

*By the way, when a hygienist asks how often you floss, it’s pointless to lie — they already know the answer to that question.

Pronouns: They, Them, Their. . . and Thon

I sometimes struggle in a world that seems to be changing at a dizzying pace. Even though I don’t see myself as resistant to change (for the most part), some of my efforts to keep pace, I fear, are ineffective. It often leaves me feeling frustrated, and I think that’s because I’m afraid of being left behind, of becoming obsolete or being found insubstantial. So, for example, if I lose connectivity with the internet and my TV thus taunts me with a simple message to that effect, I stand like a fool in front of my TV with a collection of remote controls (some of which I should have parted with years ago and another of which I suspect is an egg timer), and begin clicking every button. When I’ve exhausted all available buttons and have shaken or pounded the life out of each gadget, I unplug every cord from every nearby device and replug them one by one, and hope for the best. Some areas where learning could — and should —take place, just don’t exhibit obvious signs of growth.

Where it concerns change, however, in another realm, I try mightily to trot along with the crowd, and maintain an open and willing mind. It’s indeed heartening to see that our society is striving to create a little distance between reality and our hurtful patriarchal past. In particular, there’s a long overdue yet growing sensitivity with regard to gender-based identity. Admittedly, there’s a great deal of push-pull in the exercise — as can be expected in times of great societal re-shaping. The tussle reflects most overtly in the writing of laws — with each law passed that endeavors to provide a measure of fairness and comfort, there’s another one that sends the pendulum swinging wide in the opposite direction. Change can be uncomfortable — big change is hard.

One change that should be coming more easily to me is surprising and vexing me with how difficult I am finding it. My background includes a solid understanding of language (I have my high school Spanish teacher Sr. Faria to thank for instilling a love of foreign languages), so the expanded applications and use of the pronouns they/them/their to refer to a gender-neutral person should result in a positive embracing of the utilitarian nature of these pronouns. I say utilitarian because they, them, and their have long been used to refer to an antecedent of indefinite gender, even in the singular. (Here is a perfectly acceptable example: Every child wants to be loved unconditionally by their parents. I used to wrestle with the acceptability of using a pronoun that implied a plural antecedent, and would have said or written the sentence in this cumbersome way: “Every child wants to be loved unconditionally by his or her parents.”) Having been assured that Chaucer on occasion used the plural pronoun in similar instances, I am reasonably appeased.

It is one thing to accept the new normal, to get totally behind it — it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice or to navigate the new contexts in which I find it. This morning I read an article in The Atlantic about homeownership that was a fresh and highly engaging perspective. I was taken by surprise by the claim that homeowners these days are staying put longer than was happening when my husband and I bought our first house in the mid-80’s. Compare the five-to-seven year average from 1985 to mid-2000’s with the current average of 13 years, figures provided by HousingWire, a real estate news outfit. As I read along, musing that our first ownership lasted exactly 13 years — evidently, we far exceeded the average, I wondered about the reasons why homeowners these days stay put for a much longer stretch of time. It’s an idea that needs to be parsed, but perhaps later. I quickly got hung up on the featured homeowners, that weren’t homeowners, per se, but rather, homeowner (singular). The proliferation of they, them and their kept tripping me up, so unaccustomed am I to the evolving nature of gender-marking pronouns. I quickly found that my reading comprehension — which is never sharp in the best of circumstances — dropped to an even lower level. Unable to get back on track, I went into a panic. I was overthinking every sentence, looking at each as a mechanical arrangement of lifeless words that performed specific functions but conveyed no meaning. Subject-verb-object or subject-verb-adjective-object or subject-verb-possessive pronoun-object. I could no longer make sense of what I was reading, and it was all because I couldn’t get beyond the fact that a plural pronoun was being used for a singular antecedent. It’s like when someone tells you not to think about such-and-such, and then all you can do is think about it. At one point, I contemplated recasting the subject as a couple instead of one person, but that had no hope of working because I knew that the story was about Neilson, just Neilson, not Neilson and Amelia, or Neilson and David, or Neilson and their pet rabbit Twinkie. (See what I mean? Didn’t you just think that Neilson and somebody else had a pet rabbit Twinkie?)

Change is not easy. A part of me wants to re-read the article over and over until it feels natural. There’s a lot to recommend that approach, because it’s through repeated exposure that I’ll become accustomed to the pronouns’ new applications. On the other hand, I’m aware that there is another set of pronouns already out there that, unlike they/them/their; always refer to a singular, gender-neutral antecedent. Thon, thon’s, and thonself, where “thon” is a contracted form of “that one”. I find these words appealing because they’re so unfamiliar that I wouldn’t already have a fixed understanding or pre-conceived concept of their meaning. The freshness of these words would — in my mind — suit the new expectation. If I read the phrase, “When Neilson bought thon first home…” I wouldn’t have to first undo my understanding about Neilson and someone else; it would be Neilson. . . just gender-neutral Neilson.

It’s doubtful that thon and its other forms will ever garner enough followers to make it a viable pronoun. In my opinion, it’s a tragic waste, given that Merriam Webster had preserved its place in their dictionary from 1934-1961; alas, it was removed due to lack of use. Thon’s inner flame was extinguished too early, one might say.

As disappointed as I am that enough people are unlikely to be inspired to resurrect a perfectly adequate but demoted word, I’m nevertheless invigorated by this recent evidence of the transformative nature of our language’s pronouns. It is hoped that the adoption by the masses of better means to communicate gender identity will result in greater understanding and empathy. Now to invest the effort required to become skilled in their expanded uses. Right alongside efforts to identify remote control devices, as well as cords running — at times mysteriously — from wall outlets to contrivances like modems, cable boxes, security cameras, Roku streaming stick, Sonos speakers, Wii gizmo, and (oh, yes!) the TV.

Opinion: What’s the Matter With You, Charles Koch?

Charles G. Koch, the long-reigning CEO of Koch Industries, has shown his avaricious nature by publicly stating recently that — by continuing business operations in Russia amidst the barbaric war that their leader is waging against Ukraine — he is putting the welfare of 600+ employees ahead of the greater cause of democracy and the lives of thousands of innocent Ukrainians. (By the way, Mr. Koch, no one believes that that’s the fundamental reason for your inaction. Profit has always been your prime motivation. How else to explain that you’re the 18th richest person in the United States — right behind your brother’s wife, Julia Koch.) I’m taking specific aim at Koch Industries when I condemn the 162 companies that obstinately refuse to end or suspend operations in Russia.

Why does Charles Koch deserve particular scrutiny or scorn in this instance? While it’s convenient to begin with his self-delusional lie regarding his reasons not to suspend business in Russia, there are more worrisome signs, in my mind, that this individual is devoid of most of the characteristics that I associate with worthy, civic-minded Americans. And while he may be a decent human being — he looks like he is kindly, his ideologies are in perfect contrast with my own.

The list of sins is long:

  • Deems labor unions as harmful to workers.
  • Minimum wage, likewise, hurts workers.
  • believes public education has been contaminated by a culture of “protectionism”. I listened to a podcast in which he spoke with authority about the common practice of school districts to keep unqualified teachers, all harking back to the poisonous effect of teacher unions.
  • Public educators stifle creativity and promote liberal views.
  • Believes there should be broad environmental de-regulation.
  • Is skeptical about climate change, especially our species’ role in it.
  • A free market economy fosters a society where the rich will provide for the poor; we don’t need governmental assistance (or interference), thankyouverymuch.

Any one of his “truths” can easily be dismantled, and as a retired educator with years and years of both classroom and leadership experience, I’d love to go toe-to-toe with him — at least on the matter of public education; but at the end of the day, his bottomless wallet has vastly more influence on others’ thinking than my impassioned words. He can set up nonprofit organizations, and as part of his family’s “Youth Entrepreneur” program he can dangle tuition money and start-up money in front of (literally) hungry and directionless students; he can even transfer jaw-dropping amounts of money into Republican candidates’ coffers or lobby for de-regulation in all manner of industry.

With the bits that I’ve learned about one of our country’s richest individuals — and I admit a certain bias against ridiculously wealthy people; they can’t claim to have a genuine pulse on what’s best for the average man or woman— I can’t help but shake my head in pure disbelief when I contemplate Mr. Koch’s indefensible contention that he cares too deeply about his 600+ employees working in glass manufactories (operations for which Koch Industries receives tax credits) within the borders of one of our world’s most thuggish and megalomaniacal dictators. Charles Koch’s “philanthropic” reputation cannot help but be stained by his decision. It is to be hoped that he will see the light. . . before it’s too late.

Sources:

Am I Elderly or Still “of a Certain Age”?

I’m elderly. I’m elderly. If I say it enough times, will it be easier to accept? But, is 66 really elderly? Is this something that I should accept (right now)? Am I elderly? Or can I still claim that I am “of a certain age”?

These questions have been ricocheting around the insides of my brain since the end of last week when I had my annual physical exam. (Confession: my last “annual” exam was over four years ago.) Pre-registration was a mighty affair — there were about five pages of questions and fact sheets; even though I entered the clinic with a spring in my step because I’d been feeling pretty fine of late, the “me” who left forty-five minutes later did so with sagging shoulders and spirits and minus the spring in my step. More than anything, I’m curious to know if my contemporaries have recently faced this new line of interrogation. I’m told that the protocol shifts once someone reaches 65 years old.

I was prepared for the softball question — do I feel safe in my home? but beyond that, whoa!, things got real very quickly. I answered questions about whether I use a handrail when climbing or descending my staircases (sometimes), is there a “grab” rail in my shower (no, not the kind that would sustain my weight), do I have scatter rugs (no, but the edge of one of my area rugs is curled up in one corner), nightlights (yes, but they’re currently not plugged in), moveable objects between my bed and the bathroom (do dogs count?), do I have difficulty walking, getting up after sitting for any length of time (define “difficulty”), do I own a space heater (yes, but I lied and said I don’t), do I smoke (no, but this questionnaire is having me consider it), how much alcohol do I consume (when you say “glass of wine”, how big do you mean)? And, finally, the “mini-cog test”: I was asked to draw a clock showing “forty-five minutes after ten o’clock”. Wouldn’t it vex you that they didn’t ask it in the normal way: draw a clock showing “ten forty-five”? No one says, “Meet me at Loretta’s at forty-five minutes after ten o’clock”.

The “mini-cog” test

The mini-cog test, I learn, is to test for early signs of dementia. Dementia is obviously a big concern once someone surpasses the golden age of 65. I know this because the nurse practitioner dedicated a chunk of our time to discussing the importance of having a living will, in which I would make clear to my family whether or not I would want, for example, to be left on life support (long-term) if I were irredeemably suffering full-blown dementia. Better to have that mapped out before it becomes an emotionally-charged issue.

I was careful to appear hale and hearty, mainly because I had read that you don’t typically incur a co-pay for well-visits, but if a diagnosis should arise or medication is changed or newly-prescribed, you may have to pay a co-pay. Honestly, though, I was feeling hale and hearty. . . until the living will discussion.

In sum, it was a lot to take in, even for someone who does every imaginable screening that is medically possible. (I was even apologetic for going nine months between my last two dental check-ups.) So, does anyone know if the protocol changes again when we reach 70 years old? What questions will they add then? As much as I appreciate my doctor wanting to understand me completely, as someone who worked for decades in the field of education, I also understand how questionnaires work — some of the questions exist simply to plant ideas; one might claim that there’s a certain degree of propaganda built into them. Call me cynical, but I can’t help but wonder how it helps my doctor to know that, at age 66, of sound mind, I own a space heater. (What, is she going to call me up nightly and ask if I remembered to turn it off?) It’s a really great little appliance, by the way, with a realistic flame that appears to lovingly lick the fake logs. Should I be worried, though? About forgetting to turn it off, I mean? This dementia thing has really gotten to me.

Happy Birthday Messages

(In order to protect the privacy of family I’m using initials for siblings and spouses.)

The author wins with an early (tactile) greeting!

The COVID-inspired group texts began as an affectionate reaching-out among the siblings, a way to acknowledge each other’s birthdays, a way — too — to preserve the threads that bind us together. I don’t remember when it started or who started it (probably it was “PM”; no, surely it was her), but it was a simple happy birthday message and because it included the group of siblings and spouses, it served as a reminder to those of us who might otherwise forget the birthday. As with most things in this family, the thoughtful gesture kindled the competitive spirit that often defines our special relationship. The birthday greeting soon became sport, today’s version of sport. . . which is to say, competition that must also entertain. The back-and-forth volleys continue all day long and sometimes resemble stream of consciousness, entering and exiting topics to the point where the message’s focus and clarity are often temporarily lost. No rules guide the conversation, but it all concludes with an acknowledgement of who the winner is, not that that’s ever in doubt; quite simply, whoever expressed happy birthday first is the winner.

At our age, and as we grapple with all the COVID-generated challenges that carry uncertain implications, the simple gesture of wishing each other a happy birthday takes on added value. It brings a little bit of joy and humor to our day. (I wonder if the others have come to depend on this new ritual as much as I have. I’m retired — I have plenty of time not to forget their birthdays.)

Our family’s interactions — even via text messages — illuminate who we really are and the powerful yet concealed dynamics that shape our hierarchy. It might be obvious who among the thirteen siblings and spouses enjoys great respect by virtue of birth order (the oldest) or who gets teased the most (the youngest), but we rarely dive deep to try and understand, say, why one sibling — always willing to try something new — eagerly (and optimistically) cartwheels right into the middle of things, why another is content to stand apart and simply observe what’s going on, why another converts a thing said or done into a joke, and yet another offers words that always pull us close together when we’ve unwittingly drifted onto potentially dangerous emotional minefields. We fall quickly and easily into our typical roles.

For many of us, deprived of the freedom to move easily among people (haven’t we all become more deliberate in our social contact?), we’ve been compelled to fill the void by instead connecting with each other through words, and this seems like a positive byproduct of social distancing. And words are never just words; they carry overt, as well as subtle and implied meaning. I never have bought into that saying about sticks and stones — it’s just a hollow attempt to excuse meanness. The messages, emails, face-time, and even cards and letters, do much to reduce the space between us; they serve as timely signposts that we’re being thought of, that we’re part of something essential.

Now, for your entertainment, I offer you a sample of one of our birthday exchanges; it just happens to be the most recent one.

Key to actors:

  • KM = brother #1 (oldest)
  • TM = brother #2
  • MGM = wife of brother #2
  • CM = brother #3
  • PM = wife of brother #3
  • JTM = middle child of 7 (and author)
  • MD = sister (5th child)
  • TD = husband of sister
  • M-nmn-M = brother #4 (6th child)
  • JM = wife of brother #4
  • RM = brother #5 (7th child, youngest)
  • MM = wife of brother #5

(KM): Let there be no equivocation, JTM is the winner of the birthday greeting sweepstakes. (text is accompanied by photo of opened birthday card.)

(MD): That is cheating! No early entries. But really she is the winner!

(JTM): (laughs at “That is cheating!…winner”)

(KM): I consider a card the highest form of fraternal affection so JTM wins not only relative to the timing of the occasion but also in the form of said expression.

(CM): I’ve been planning next year.

(KM): Clearly a capitulation to the stylistic and expertly conducted campaign by JTM.

(CM): no, this was in my plans all along due to the extensive nature of the preparation as well as the significant capital deployment.

(TD): . . . in other words, no card, no gift?

(CM): and no text

(KM) By your words you have obviously conceded that you could not compete with the emotional commitment and outlay of a simple but meaningful gesture.

(CM): Dah.

(TD): (laughs at “and no text”)

(KM): I offer the old but sage expression, “It’s the thought that counts”

(KM): As I plan my celebration of my entry on this orb, I plan to arise with the sun, walk the beach in deep contemplation of all the gifts and talents I have experienced over the course of a lifetime devoted to the pursuit of communing with my fellow man.

(KM): I then will repair to my humble abode and prepare a sumptuous petite dejeuner of crepes and imported mixed fruit compote with which to share with my devoted wife of 28 years.

(CM): Somebody break KM’s phone.

(TD): (submits an animated GIF of his wife MD looking either bewildered or “out of it” or perhaps long-suffering. It’s hard to tell.)

(KM): Having so sustained myself I will head over to the local St. Vincent DePaul thrift store where I will offer my services for the poor and indigent. Thus having restored both body and soul I will return home for a luxurious nap.

(PM): (laughs at “somebody break KM’s phone.”) Then, (laughs at “having so sustained myself. . . nap”)

(TM): This has been so much fun. Can we do this again tomorrow? Oops, it is tomorrow. So, Happy Birthday, KM.

(JM): Happy Birthday Kev! Enjoy the crepes & compote.

(MM): HAPPY BIRTHDAY (with party/celebration icon)

(KM): Thanks to all, love you

(MD): Happy birthday!!! (with party/celebration and cake icons)

(MGM): I am the late bird. Happy happy birthday, KM!! (with several celebration icons) Hope it’s a great day and year!

(CM): HB, KM

(And where’s RM, people?!)

*************************************

Alas, my feelings of victory are hollow ones because (I must confess) the card arrived earlier than KM’s birthday only because I can never remember the precise date!

Bridges

As everyone who knows me understands, I love to study the landscape when driving. It takes a real conscious effort to keep my eyes on the road, and there are several views that make such responsible behavior very difficult. As I’ve mentioned before, whenever I cross the Gillis Bridge on Rt. 1 between Salisbury and Newburyport — especially at either sunrise or sunset — my eyes veer from the path I’m traveling in order to drink in the beauty. What is it about bridges that stirs our sensibilities?

When I was teenager (and at the age where one would assume reason had begun to take hold), I often took long walks and even longer bike rides from my home high on Titicut Hill, a place that had amazing, long views in nearly every direction, but was envied by no one because of its proximity to a maximum security prison. For those wondering why on earth I would take long walks and bike rides in that setting, it comes down to this: you can live a cowed, circumscribed life behind locked doors, or you can shrug your shoulders and ask yourself, what are the odds — really — that an escaped prisoner will happen to be in the same space at the same moment as I? (Weirdly, and maybe inexplicably, I didn’t find it creepy, but rather reassuring when the patrol would follow slowly behind me on the service roads and field lanes.) As everyone who grew up around Alden Square knows, you did your best to assign the prison to a subordinate corner of your mind, and tried to have an ordinary childhood.

In my travels back then I would inevitably stop in the middle of whatever bridge I crossed. Living in Bridgewater implied that there was no paucity of bridges that spanned waterways. Most often, the water maundered lazily, affording my thoughts to likewise flow without hurry from one idea to another. Whether this habit translated into a lifelong fascination with bridges over water, or it was because of an innate fascination in the first place that led me — as if by magnetic force — to the middle spot of all those hometown bridges; it has been an enduring compulsion.

My dog Mona, however, does not share my affinity for bridges, and I trace it back to our first “journey” over a serious bridge. Soon after the completion of the new John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge over the Merrimack River in 2017, I was eager to walk the pedestrian trail connector that was included in the engineering plans for the replacement bridge. (The bike/pedestrian walkway had been proudly acclaimed as the first of its kind to be built into an interstate bridge.)

After parking the car, I set out with Mona from the Salisbury side of the William Lloyd Garrison Trail. We had gone barely fifty feet and she began sniffing around for a suitable place to “do her business”. Alas, her only option consisted of one thing — concrete. Soon her appraisal took on a desperate quality. I assumed (wrongly) as I coaxed her along that she would become less particular about bathroom accommodations. She tried to be a good sport about it, trotting along for a bit, then swiveling or zigzagging whenever her nose picked up a scent that only dogs can detect. Dissatisfied, she’d then continue on beside me. By now, we were about one-third of the way in our ascension of the bridge’s span. And, then, Mona’s relief was suddenly at hand (or paw). There, right there in her path, was the magic key to her deliverance. A single leaf. I watched — one can’t help but be interested when a dog is aiming for a single leaf. Mona skillfully arranged herself above the leaf and achieved a perfect dispatch. (Granted, the havanese — with those short legs — is already close to the ground.) I may have imagined it, but it did seem her eyes rolled toward heaven and she shuddered with (physical) relief.

Mona seemed, if not happy, at least willing to continue our journey. I, of course, felt the need to reach the pinnacle of the bridge’s span. (For those unfamiliar with the Whittier Bridge, it is a substantial one over a sizable river.) If I could get to the bridge’s midpoint, I knew I would be rewarded with an exquisite view of Deer Island, which sits in the middle of the Merrimack, suspended charmingly between two small bridges. To this point, I hadn’t noticed that the wind was picking up. But, by the time we reached my goal and turned to face Deer Island to the east, the wind was howling. I wanted to enjoy the moment. I tried to enjoy it. I just couldn’t, and in all fairness to my 12-pound little girl, the situation demanded that I — for once — accept that not every bridge is well-suited to reflective thought. We turned and headed back down the bridge, Mona in good spirits, but — no doubt — making a mental note to object with every one of her twelve pounds if I ever, ever tried to take her on the Whittier Bridge again.

Merrimack River looking west from RR Bridge trailhead at Old Eastern Marsh Trail (Salisbury MA)