Goodbye, 2021

Before we all kicked the year 2021 square in the butt, I’m sure we were already imagining ways in which 2022 might be better. It can’t be worse, we all say with more wishful thinking than confidence. I wonder, though, whether we begin 2022 with greater determination to succeed in our resolutions and promises or instead with a noncommittal shrug of the shoulders that suggests we wield less power over our lives than we would wish. Like the next person, I gave some thought to the new year, but at this juncture there’s still a great deal of vagueness; I’d say my resolutions are yet unformed, but might include ideas such as “be kinder” and “practice intentionality”, which means, I think, that I won’t be able to continue for long with my yet unformed resolutions. The impediment to launching — right now — into any list of concrete, measurable, and healthful goals is that I’m not finished with 2021.

It started by musing out loud in the presence of my daughter that there must have been something positive about 2021, some gains; you can’t have a whole year that was just awful from beginning to end. . . can you? Thus, before I wrestle with any mental exercises to view 2022 with suitable optimism, I’ll pause to reflect on the upside of 2021.

So, here’s what I’ve got:

  • Our society is thinking more creatively about the 40-hour/week/9-5 work paradigm. The concept of “deep work” finally caught on, resulting in lots of companies going to a four-day work week. The common sense inherent in the term means that businesses have re-structured how their workers behave while on the clock. Without getting into the finer points, a couple of typical examples would be: adjustments to meeting schedules to allow for greater productivity, and when and how many times a worker should look at email messages. Businesses have generally been urged to consider modifications that bring about greater efficiency, less wasted time. In a related way, working remotely has become acceptable; finally, employers are trusting that many tasks can be performed off-site and out of view of the boss.
  • Lighter traffic on the roads. As a consequence of the first item on this list, there are fewer cars, hence fewer annoying people out there. In many cases, we are also surprised by available parking where heretofore one had to be unusually lucky to find a parking spot.
  • Improved air quality (especially in countries and regions with historically horrible patterns of pollution, namely the United States, China, and Europe), less so in countries that have already been proactive in reducing carbon emissions (such as Sweden).
  • Expanded choices for lovers of jigsaw puzzles. I leave you to reflect on that however you will.
  • “Oobleck” is officially in the dictionary. (Increased home schooling likely was a factor.) In a year in which Dr. Seuss’ legacy came under harsh scrutiny, this validation by Merriam-Webster warms the heart of all of us. Who didn’t — at least once (and probably only once) — destroy their parents’ kitchen creating a school project with a cornstarch, water, and food coloring concoction? And, of course, because memory softens over time, we repeated the nightmare with our own children.*

It’s easy to see how the few examples above inter-connect, at least if we tease out their genesis. And while it might cause us to pucker our faces, the notion that COVID has brought about anything good is worthy of rejoicing. Such thinking allows us to say with no sense of contradiction, Hallelujah, and good riddance, 2021!

*Recipe for Oobleck: 1c cornstarch, 1-2c water, few drops food coloring; add water to cornstarch in mixing bowl; add food coloring. To achieve desired consistency, add more water or cornstarch as needed.

Fun Fact: quicksand operates on the same principle as Oobleck; they’re non-Newtonian fluids, neither solid nor liquid. Instead they get their properties by either increasing or decreasing pressure. Here’s a great article on Oobleck by Scientific American, whereby they even coax you to make a “big batch” of the substance in a large bin, then remove your shoes and socks and step into it and walk around in it. (Do you sink in when you stand on it? they invite you to discover.)

Lamenting the Decline of the Semicolon

Seriously, when was the last time you used a semicolon? Are you so afraid of using it wrong that you just don’t? Did you know that it’s considered the most controversial punctuation mark?

This past week I came across an essay on the diminished use of the semicolon, and it piqued my interest. I confess that I’m a big fan of that particular mark of punctuation; sometimes, a comma just can’t do the job, and using a period to create a full stop hews my ideas too radically. If you shy from using it, here’s a simple piece of wisdom from a 17th century language expert; Richard Hodges gives us this guidance: “At a comma, stop a little; at a semicolon, somewhat more.” (Follow link here to ThoughtCo.)

The essay that caught my interest, “The melancholy decline of the semicolon” by Will Lloyd (follow link here) was a delightful look at how authors and readers feel about the inherent worth of a punctuation mark that is so often misunderstood that it engenders strong feelings of contempt. Imagine that! A tiny grammatical function has the power to incite loathing.

Pause to consider what Ben Platt discovered in 2017: from 1800 to 2000, semicolon usage decreased 70%. Also, researchers at Lancaster University tell us that in the last 30 years, usage of the semicolon has decreased by 25%. One should not conclude that I’m a smug know-it-all when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I make lots of mistakes, and I frequently will re-write chunks of sentences just to avoid cornering myself in a situation in which only the best editors and language experts can maneuver with finesse. But there are times when I will not be dissuaded from its use; I will not, as others might suggest, use the em-dash or simply slap a period down with a sense of dramatic finality. I worry, too, that I’ll wake up one of these mornings and the headlines will be some version of: “Semicolon Usage to be Outlawed.” Just as worrisome is the thought that I’ll be among the 5% still using the semicolon, while the rest of the population will be communicating entirely in acronyms and sentence fragments. At some point, someone will ask with complete bewilderment, “What’s a sentence?” SMH WTF

The Bugler and His French Wife

Sometimes all it takes is a photograph, and we family researchers are like a dog with a bone. I had always known a few of the essential facts about my grandmother’s brother, “the one who moved away”, but other than being only mildly curious about Edwin Lincoln Murphy’s life in France, there wasn’t any single detail that made me especially interested in his story. He was just one of Nana Morrissey’s many siblings, and that’s how it remained for nearly forty years.

Recently, however, I was busily examining a boxful of family photos and albums that had been sitting in storage at my Aunt Ginny’s house in West Medford, Massachusetts. It was impossible to ignore one of the largest photos in the box, an 11” x 14” portrait, still sheathed in the photographer’s protective sleeve. The curious photograph instantly captured my attention; peering intently at the subject, my first thought was, this is not a relative; she’s too pretty. All my Murphy ancestors could be described as long-faced, mournful, in some cases dour-looking; it may be somewhat unfair, but the word that always comes to mind is “horsey”. Reine’s portrait had been professionally done by a well-known photographer whose studio was in Biarritz, France; it featured a young woman in her mid-twenties. She had delicate features and dark eyes that hinted at vulnerability; her smile, too, suggested an innocence, or at least an openness, as she looked slightly over her shoulder at the camera.

More than one hundred years after Winchester, Massachusetts native Edwin Murphy married the enchanting Reine Latrille of Bordeaux, France, we still don’t know — and likely never will know — how and where they met. Their long lives together remain a mystery, a romantic one, to be sure, and with all that we don’t know — yet can’t help but imagine — about the couple, it makes their story all the more captivating.

The first time I knew of the existence of Reine was an oblique reference by my Aunt Ginny back in the 80’s. I was beginning to get serious about my family research, and Aunt Ginny was the best informant I had for details about my father’s side of the equation. Reine was never mentioned by name, nor the fact that she was French. She was only ever referred to as Edwin Murphy’s wife.

Edwin in photo preserved by Reparations Commission post- WW1

 To begin, you’ll need to understand who Edwin was. Edwin Lincoln Murphy was my one of my grandmother’s two younger brothers, the fourth child (of eight) born to my paternal great-grandparents, Edward P. and Honora (Walsh) Murphy. Until the age of twenty-two, he lived with his family in Winchester, Massachusetts. The only biographical details I could tease out about his early life came from a few mentions in The Winchester Star. It appears he, like two of his sisters, was big into basketball; he also played football, for which he was awarded a varsity letter. Edwin was also a musician and performed (in a Shakespeare scene) at his Winchester High School graduation in 1914. After graduation, one of the things we know about him is that he joined the Massachusetts Militia as a bugler. He would continue to have that unique responsibility when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917. In March of 1918, he left the United States on an Army transport and began his military career, making France his permanent home, but visiting his family often in Winchester and (later) Somerville throughout the years. From the end of 1919 — when Edwin and Reine married — until about 1980, Edwin and Reine alternated between Paris and their home in Bordeaux, but gave up the Paris apartment on Rue Marbeauf (known as “the street of the shirtmakers”), thus making Gradignan their year-round home for the remaining ten years of their lives.

Aunt Ginny with Reine in
Somerville MA c1926

It is easy to see how my Aunt Ginny, who was always enamored of exotic and sparkly people and things, could be smitten by her French aunt, an alluring creature with a buoyant personality and unconventional behaviors. When I reflect on the eye-catching couture style choices that seemed as much a part of Aunt Ginny’s persona as her forthright manner and careerist mindset, I suspect her greatest fashion influence was her Aunt Reine. She adored her, besides.

Reine Latrille was born in Gradignan, Bordeaux, France on April 16, 1898 to Marguerite Catherine Latrille and “un père non nommé” (unnamed father), the French people’s neutral way of saying a child was illegitimate. To date, no records have been found to suggest that Reine had siblings or that her mother ever formally married, although unofficially Dominique Michel is referenced as her husband and Reine’s father. According to one of Edwin’s expedited passport applications, Dominique — Edwin’s “future father-in-law” — appeared to be a successful Parisian businessman with an interest in freight shipping (via railroad). By July of 1919, Edwin had already partnered with Dominique, having invested 50,000 francs in his business. I often come back to the question, Is that how Edwin met Reine? Through her father? Or was it the other way around – he met Reine, and, through her, formed a business relationship with her father? At the very least, it’s safe to say that they met in France. Whether it was Paris, where he was stationed in the U.S. Army, or Bordeaux, where the more temperate climes made for pleasant escape, Edwin very likely was instantly love-struck upon meeting Reine. 

What we’re able to piece together about Edwin and Reine’s early years of marriage is that they lived with her parents, and that they made occasional return trips to Massachusetts, at least every few years. Also, they vacationed in Biarritz, on the French Riviera; the seaside resort town — a popular destination for French aristocracy — is described as the “jewel of France’s Atlantic coast”.

At this juncture, it would be prudent for me to confess that I tend to fall under the spell of my own restless imagination. Inasmuch as available documentation often fails to offer the finer details of a subject’s personality or the most engaging features of a person’s life, it is of great benefit to introduce an element of wonder as we contemplate the full story. Thus, in stitching together sufficient (documented) details, the narrative becomes much more satisfying by having, let’s say, “gilded” the cold, hard facts. I’m okay with this approach, even if the purists within the genealogical community are not. After all, we are all prone to fill in our own blanks when confronted with stories that have empty spaces. 

Furthermore, it’s useful to keep present in our minds the impact of historical context. In the case of Edwin and Reine, it is particularly meaningful that during World War II they lived both in Paris, which surrendered to Germany quickly and with little resistance in June of 1940, and Bordeaux, the region to which the French government and many Parisians consequently fled. I stifle the urge to imagine that they immersed themselves in all manner of subversive acts or that they inserted themselves into La Résistance. I see it as perfectly acceptable, however, to make qualifying statements such as, “It’s conceivable that when Paris was invaded by the German Army, Edwin and Reine retired to Bordeaux, to wait out the war.” Bear in mind that while Edwin initially held a subordinate position in the U.S. Army while serving in the earlier world war, his trustworthiness and sense of responsibility were qualities that his superiors recognized soon thereafter and rewarded through several promotions. For an unspecified period of time, he held the position of court reporter for the U.S. Army. As a staff member of the Reparations Commission that was formed once the terms of the Treaty of Versailles had been “negotiated,” he began as the private secretary to the head of the Finance Service, then moved on to assistant cashier, next promoted to cashier. It would appear, then, that he knew how to make himself very useful to upper brass. In any event, it’s doubtful that either he or Reine would have wanted to invite the curiosity of any Nazi officers.

I made the mistake early in my searching of assuming that Edwin and Reine had children. So, when I hired a French genealogist to investigate records in his country, I included instructions to look for birth records, beginning around the time that the couple married (1919). Paul-Marc was a tenacious investigator, but he came up empty-handed in that particular task. It puzzled me because I had for so long imagined that the presence of children would have been why they never migrated back to the States. I returned to the clues that Aunt Ginny had given me, and realized that she had never indicated that the couple had children. There was never a mention of “family”.  I then, of course, wondered if that was by choice. We’ll never know.

Reine vacationing in Biarritz

From available military records, held from the time he served on the Reparations Commission, it was easy to piece together a pattern in the 1920s, whereby he gave written instructions to have his pay deposited into a Paris bank while he and Reine vacationed in the French Riviera for a month at a time. Photos from the era support the claim that they favored the popular seaside town of Biarritz. I found one interesting account of a swanky Easter weekend gala at the Hotel Miramar, which — if the newspaper reporter’s numbers can be trusted — was attended by 350 guests, several of whom were singled out by name; they represented the French aristocracy and many majors and captains, barons and baronesses, counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses . . . and Mrs. Edwin Murphy, apparently unaccompanied by her husband. (Disclaimer: I have no proof that this is our Mrs. Edwin Murphy, but signs do point in that direction.) Among the glamorous, bejeweled attendees were several members of the Rothschild family; of note were Edouard and two of his children, Guy and Jacqueline. The names will mean something to those who have always followed with interest the fate of the priceless art that the Nazis stole during WW2. For those to whom the Rothschild name means nothing, they were an established French family whose wealth and stature were tied to banking. Their unforgivable sin — to the Nazis, of course — was their Jewishness; thus they were deemed unworthy of possessing fine art.

Available evidence of Edwin and Reine’s activities from the 1940’s until their deaths in 1990 dwindle, making it impossible to color in any details of their lives. It can be said that, with the exception of one visit in 1950, after the deaths of Edwin’s parents, first his mother in 1946 and then his father in 1949, their trips to Massachusetts ceased. Not only does it leave us with a lot of unanswered questions, but great disappointment about the apparent detachment from the family.

With several decades of unaccounted movements and activities, their final hours on this earth nevertheless capture our attention and evoke our sympathy. On February 13, 1990 — one day after he turned 94 years old — Edwin passed away at their Bordeaux home in Gradignan. Twenty hours later, Reine, too, died in that same place. No record has yet to be found that confirms their final resting place. Their bodies were cremated, and given the absence of any French relatives, Paul-Marc conjectures (with more wishful thinking than the evidence suggests) that they may have been buried alongside Dominique Michel in Paris, where, also and presumably, Reine’s mother was laid to rest. 

As is the case with any family research project, I imagine, we remain most unsettled about the members of our family whose stories persist as mysteries. Often they live and die without descendants to keep their memories alive, and their deaths go unnoticed, unremarked upon, unmemorialized. The worst fate, in my opinion, is to be forgotten. Like most family researchers, I’ll never completely close the book on a subject, even one for whom further clues remain obdurately hidden. No matter what bargains I might be willing to secretly or pointlessly negotiate, I’m always hopeful for just one more hint. Rarely, then, do we consider the job done. Most researchers pledge, “At least guide me to the headstone that proclaims, ‘Here lies so-and-so’ and I’ll be content.” Memory would thus be ensured. The hunt, then, is still on for the final chapter on Edwin and Reine.

A Few Memorable Reads from 2021

If I were to settle on the one book that I found most satisfying to read this past year, it would be Circe by Madeline Miller. When I finished it, I wanted instantly to call Lindsey so we could talk about it. And then I scrabbled around in my head, thinking, who should I give it to next? Circe now is in my other daughter’s queue. For those looking for a fresh (subversive) take on a peripheral character of Homer’s The Odyssey, I give this book my highest endorsement. (And this is coming from someone who has never even dabbled in greek mythology.) As I’m sure others have done when they finish a book that leaves them thirsting for more, I launched eagerly into another of Miller’s greek myths, The Song of Achilles (which was published in 2012, and, of course, endorsed on the cover of Circe). Loved that one, too!

It only seems fitting that I include a link to the indie bookstore where I bought Circe: https://www.waterstreetbooks.com/book/9780316556323

Here are just a couple other good reads, neither of which are new releases, but well worth your trip to the library:

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe, 2019. The granular details of the 30-year struggle for peace in Northern Ireland (ending as recently as 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday accord) impress upon the reader the complexities and fraught realities of life in the region, particularly Belfast. As fascinating as this account is of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, not to be overlooked is the story behind the story, the controversial interviews that took place with key members of the IRA. Boston College’s Belfast Project became the focal point of an international court case as the two sides fought over control of the cache of interview tapes, the secrecy of which was promised by BC. I assure you, as soon as you finish the book, you’ll be online in a flash, trying to find out all you can about the “rest of the story.” Start by googling “Boston Tapes”.

The Immortal Irishman, the Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, by Timothy Egan, 2016. When my brother-in-law Tom recommended this book to me, I knew it would be captivating because there are few books that can grab and hold his interest for the duration. My other motivation had to do with a discovery I had made about one of my Uncle Jimmy’s Irish relatives; Se´an MacDiarmada, a possible second cousin of his father, was one of the seven signatories of the Easter Rising of 1916, all of whom were executed for their role in the insurrection.

The Immortal Irishman follows the inspiring life of Thomas Francis Meagher from his privileged beginnings in Waterford City to his participation in the Rebellion of 1848 to his life sentence on Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Australia, and his escape from there to the United States. You’ll follow with rapt interest his exploits as the gritty leader of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War, at every turn asking yourself, “How did he survive that?” His is a remarkable story, and Egan does him full justice in his methodically researched and even-paced narrative.

As you can see, my interest cleaves to 19th and 20th century Irish history, and that’s no accident. On nearly every branch of my family tree, my ancestors immigrated from counties all over Ireland — Donegal, Galway, Waterford, Clare, Monaghan, Cork, Kilkenny — to this country either during the Great Famine or a generation later. It’s natural to want to understand the lifestyle of our forebears and their reasons for leaving home. . . for good.

I’m curious to know what books have captured your interest in 2021. Any common elements or particular motifs?

My Favorite Book: the Evolution of a Bibliophile

Depending on when you ask me, the mood I’m in, I’m apt to give you a different answer to the question, “What was your favorite children’s book?” Sometimes I might answer, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (The full title is actually A Little Princess, Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe, Now Being Told for the First Time). Other times, I’ll say Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It surprises me, then, that I’m now casting the exercise in a different light. If I tried to resurrect the good feelings that surrounded the experience, I would have a hard time saying which one made me feel the best. Memory plays tricks, especially if the experience is weighted with emotion. 

I’m doing just that right now — resurrecting the early emotional experiences of reading — and trying to dissect how I felt in the moment.  I read Misty several times; what made that such an enjoyable read was its ability to allow me to imagine myself owning a pony. . . that I would have bought at Pony Penning Day. It’s a common fantasy for little girls, and I fell hard in my pony yearning. It would last until I fell hard for boys.

Misty was, I believe, as much about the illustrations as the story. Maybe even more. Years later, the name of the illustrator, Wesley Dennis, would come more readily to mind than the author’s name. I began to search for books that he illustrated, finding that he regularly did the artwork for Henry. I enjoyed those other stories, including The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, but not as much as Misty

While I’m pretty certain that I bought Misty at one of those Scholastic Book Club fairs that schools often had (and still do), the mysterious appearance of A Little Princess serves as an enduring vexation. I loved its story, even more, perhaps, than Misty, and greedily — no matter where I was in my reading — sought out the illustrations, scant as they were. Try as I might, I cannot call to mind where the book came from. Nothing was ever said about it, and because nothing was ever said about it, I concluded that it wasn’t for me to know. But, why wouldn’t the “benefactor” (as I would always view the anonymous person who put it conspicuously in my path) make a show upon presenting it?

Reading A Little Princess was a much different experience from reading Misty. The first time I held the book in my lap, I had shut myself in our upstairs closet. The closet was a favorite hideaway for all of us Morrisseys. It was a roomy space in the eaves between the two upstairs bedrooms. Importantly, it had lighting — a single lightbulb screwed into a porcelain lampholder with a chain pull, within easy reach of the deep cocoon that one could make with the sleeping bags and blankets. Surrounding my nest were army cots, Christmas decorations, boxes of photos and other items either permanently forgotten or relegated to uncertain status. The closet had a door. I was only seven years old, but even then I understood the value of solitude and privacy.

 My pleasure in reading A Little Princess was intimate, private, and solitary. One might say it was transformative. It was the first time that I could truly feel I was escaping, not just my family, but my tiny life. I lost myself in the story; it defined for me — for all time — the chief purpose of books, that is, to imagine oneself in another place, another time, and in different circumstances. It wasn’t as if, at age seven, I was weighed down with fearsome burdens. That wasn’t it at all. It was just that I discovered for the first time that books offered magical alternatives, and, yes, temporary escape. Who wouldn’t love that, no matter what your life was like?

Nowadays, I typically have two, three, sometimes four books going simultaneously.* Even if I’m reading nonfiction, there’s a need to consider how the topic might tie into my life. It’s never remote or static. When I’m reading about specific moments in World War II, for example, I ask myself, how would my life be impacted if I were, say, a Frenchwoman living in Paris when Germany invaded the city in May of 1940? Teasing out that thought allows me to conclude that many residents — especially single women — found their options to be especially difficult. I can better appreciate their conflicted feelings about collaborating with the Nazis. If you’re starving or afraid, your unfortunate decisions are thus shaped. 

That’s merely one example of how books can shape our thinking, broaden our understanding of the world. Whether it be fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, true crime, etc., in some sense we are all looking to be transported. And although a return to a much earlier favorite might not produce the same feelings — in fact, it likely will not because our adult needs are far removed from those of our childhood years — we never stop seeking opportunities to deflect our current worries and to occupy our minds with more pleasant alternatives. 

*I should point out that although I read a lot, my brain often does a vigorous scrubbing; i.e., I’m apt to forget what I’ve read just as soon as I put the book aside.

Question for my readers: Can you think of books that, as a child or even now as an adult, you found transformative or influential? 

Massachusetts Birders Flock to See the Rare Steller’s Sea Eagle

Imagine being lost for a year and a half, desperately trying to get back on the path to home, which might be as much as 4700 miles away. You try one direction and it lands you in Alaska, you try another, and you’re possibly in Texas, then Quebec, then Nova Scotia, then Massachusetts, specifically the lower Taunton River. You’re alone, the only one of your species; the best you can hope for to meet your social needs is a similar predator species, such as the bald eagle. 

Birders all over the country are hyperventilating over the random appearance of a Steller’s Sea Eagle, native to coastal China and eastern Russia, and considered one of the world’s largest raptors. It lost its way mid-2020 through what is called vagrancy. There are a couple of primary reasons why vagrancy occurs. Often, a bird will make a navigational error, which doesn’t inspire quite as much sympathy as the other reason why vagrancy occurs, that is, extreme weather. Scientists are happy to point out the upside of vagrancy, despite birds’ own wishes not to be affixed with the “vagrant” label. With natural habitats becoming altered through climate change, accidental transport sometimes allows for a species to test out a new territory.  

It saddens me that this one remarkable bird — to even see pictures of it inspires awe with its splendid markings and enormous wingspan — is so obviously and desperately trying to find the way home. . . alone. We’re all pulling for him (or her), hopeful that with all this crisscrossing of our continent, the right path will be stumbled upon (or flown onto). 

This is a great site, kept fresh and interesting by birdwatchers who report on bird sightings: https://ebird.org/species/stseag

Sacrificing Family Gatherings to a Wily Virus

Bowie and Mona demonstrate the importance of family

The COVID scare has certainly altered our social behaviors, and no one knows how permanent these changes will be. Not all of the changes are bad, however; they just require more reflection and deliberate choices. For example, in the past, we might have comfortably crowded people in front of us in lines, or squandered time studying labels in a grocery store or the advertised features on boxes, bottles, and what have you. We’re more mindful these days, I believe, of the quality of our time spent around others. We’ve been forced to prioritize our moments in public. It seems that everyone I know has arrived at a similar juncture; we’re all sacrificing certain pleasures  in order to maintain some normalcy where it concerns the most important occasions or experiences.

To a heightened degree, all of us are weighing our options, with the hope that our sacrifices will result in reduced risk to our health and the health of those about whom we care most. Our family decided for the second year in a row to forfeit our Christmas Eve gathering, a tradition we have honored — unwaveringly — for several decades. While I tend to think we all were on board with that decision — as COVID cases rise once again, there’s a sense of mounting anxiety, not just about wellbeing, but the fear that a pattern is emerging because of this highly transmissible virus, and we might never extricate ourselves from this predicament. What does that mean for family gatherings? How long can we collectively hold our breath, in hopes that we prevail over COVID (in all of its mutations)? And how many of us are worrying that our sacrifices will fail to save these important traditions, that they’ll be lost forever?

Every family out there must be fretting about the fate of their traditional gatherings. With all the sacrificing that people are doing, it seems a line in the sand has been drawn. Some things shouldn’t have to be sacrificed. I don’t hesitate for an instant in making a choice between a concert and my family’s Christmas Eve event. Or a Bruins game and a week camping with my sister’s family. Wherever things stand a year hence, I resolve to no longer surrender the moments that make life worth living.

What are the sacrifices that all of you have been forced to make in order to (hopefully) propel yourself and others to a safer plateau?

Planned Obsolescence Is Not an L.L. Bean Principle

 This is a love story about an L.L. Bean fleece vest. Now, here’s what you need to know. I’ve worn the vest every day for the last fourteen days, no exceptions. In fact, I’m wearing it as I write this post.

Now, if I didn’t also include the small detail – that I’ve washed it three or four times – you might think, ew, that’s just gross, instead of getting my real point, which is that I have found an article of clothing that, having survived several trips through both the washer and dryer, I love, or, better said, I still love. That hasn’t happened in so long, and it’s usually because once I put something into the washer and then dryer, it comes out as something other than what I put in, something decidedly not good. And that makes me angry because I view it as a breach of contract. Never mind that the washing instructions might say, “hand wash only” and “hang dry”.  I think they put that on just about everything these days to let them off the hook. The liberal and, in my mind, excessive use of labels like this is designed to convince you that all clothing is a giant gamble.  Have you noticed that labels are now sewn into seams in batches of ten or more to cover all languages? And, do you find yourself standing in front of your washing machine and squinting at the tiny icons, saying to yourself, That “X” is either telling me I can’t put this in the washer, or I can’t put this in the dryer, or it’s not microwavable.” Discouraged thus, you throw it in and follow with a Fuck it. (Be especially suspicious if a label says, “dry flat”, because that’s an indication that the item was constructed by garment workers in the midst of a New Year’s Eve celebration and they expect it to either emerge from the washing machine as something entirely unrecognizable or in no fewer than a dozen pieces.)  Sad to say, the expected shelf life of clothing these days has been reduced to about the same length of time one can expect fresh raspberries to stay. . . well. . . fresh.  The most maddening thing is that clothing manufacturers go about their business with deliberate, planned obsolescence as a key part of their model. I think, as proper punishment (or poetic justice) they all should be made to wear their own constructions after three washes*.

People who study fashion, especially from a historical perspective, are quick to point out that in the 60’s and 70’s clothing was made to last for several seasons. I’m not sure, but “several seasons” probably meant three. If we’re looking for a much more dramatic comparison, I invite you to consider how clothing was viewed in colonial times; one’s last will and testament very likely included language to assure that the testator’s one wool greatcoat and homespun breeches went to son Ezekiel or close friend Isaac. They weren’t taking any chances with their priceless “waring apparil”. 

Consider, also, the status of closets in relationship to other rooms in colonial era houses.  While all rooms at that time would be classified as utilitarian, i.e., there were no pointless foyers that wasted space, or sitting rooms – who had time for that anyway?, closets were the quintessential multi-purpose room, serving a variety of purposes (but perhaps not all at the same time): for conducting business (not necessarily “that kind”, but business business), dressing, praying, freshening up with a water basin, and, yes, for conducting “that kind” of business, too. These types of closets were larger than the rarer clothes closets. So, the obvious reason as to why 18th and 19th century homes, even the nice ones, did not have clothes closets is because, as alluded to before, they didn’t have much in the way of clothing. 

It’s probably unimaginable to 21st century trendsetters, but three and four centuries ago, “fashionable” could be used to describe something that had been enjoying decades of “on trend” standing. There was a much longer trajectory from “conception to reality”, which can be better understood by taking a peek at a typical New Englander’s daily planner; instead of having quilled “school shopping”,   Ezekiel’s parents likely entered a reminder to self to  “shear sheep”, followed the next day by “clean wool”, followed the next by “card wool”, and so forth. Or maybe the notation was, “trade yrlng** for Asa’s 2nd jerkin***”. When you illuminate more broadly the historical context, it’s much easier to understand and appreciate the relationship that people had with their possessions.

Today’s habits paint a very different picture of our relationship with clothing and accessories.  We are apt to assess our mood first before we reach for any one article; “What am I feeling today?”, we think aloud before we reach for the cream colored, slouchy, cotton/poly blend, waffle-textured, high-low sweater, and the frayed hem, distressed look, boyfriend jeans. But then we waver, “Maybe I should wear that coppery colored, high-waisted, pleated corduroy skirt that I bought on sale last month.” Our thoughts about clothing contradict our behaviors; we can refer to a sweater as our favorite, and love-love-love it, but it’s likely to be in a bag destined for the Goodwill drop-off center before the very next season. And while my advice might be to never get too attached to an article of clothing, the world can be a cold and unfriendly place if we don’t indulge in some of those feel-good moments that happen – even if rarely – when, for example, an ensemble not only feels right, but fits perfectly, too, or even when we wiggle into a new pair of tights and make the happy discovery that they fit everywhere and there are no baggy ankles and we haven’t ripped them the very first time out of the package. It’s enough to make us skip around or dance in those tights in our walk-in closet. 

On the rare occasion when we stumble on an article of clothing that exceeds our much reduced expectations, it is indeed a cause for celebration. In my case, the celebration has taken the form of repeat usage. It’s not that I set out to see if I could find the breaking point of this one L.L. Bean fleece vest. I just happen to love how it feels. It’s so cozy and warm. I don’t find it impossible to believe that everyone has at least one item that’s their “go to”, one item that inspires warm and/or hopeful thoughts when they reach for it. These objects of our affection – the well-worn cap that invariably sits on a fisherman’s head when he goes out in his boat, or the Ugg slippers that would be worn to bed if the wearer could get away with it – become important talismans. While it’s highly unlikely that anyone in this day and age will puzzle over the wording of their last will and testament to assure the fate of their favorite baseball cap or L.L. Bean fleece vest, having such an attachment is of the most innocuous sort. Even if life expectancy (of the item in question) is reduced, as surely it must be, I say, Go for it!  Wear it fourteen days in a row! You can always throw it in the washing machine (unless, of course, that vexing label says it’s hand wash.)

* unless we’re talking about the jean jacket, which evidence suggests has been around since colonial times, and can take any manner of abuse and still look as good as the day it was woven. . . on a loom.

**yearling

*** Ezekiel’s uncle Asa operates the village’s only tannery behind his house on the west end, appropriately located just downwind of the last homestead.

Hello from over here!

My blog, now more than ten years old, has moved to this new location. I’m poking around to see what this new home is all about, and exploring fresh ideas to make it perfect. I hope I can depend on your patience as I (boldly?) experiment with aesthetics and new ways of presentation. It’s an opportunity, too, to break away from habits that haven’t done anything worth keeping, either for you or for me.

If you’re a new visitor or follower, here’s what you can expect to find. When I was a high school classroom teacher, I was forever finding opportunities to tell my students stories, often about growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s next to a maximum security prison. Always there would be a point, sometimes subtly delivered, but educators never willingly forfeit a teachable moment. Chaos could be reigning, and all I needed to say (in nothing more than a conversational tone) to instantly grab their attention was, “Let me tell you a story. . . ” So, for decades, I’ve been telling stories, often in the oral tradition. Now blessed with an abundance of free time in my retirement, my brain has a chance to focus on my stories and luxuriate in the details. I’m enjoying this new sense of wonder that I bring to the effort. In short, this is all about my evolution as a writer. “Becoming a writer”, I find, is no easy thing. Just as there were countless acronyms and industry-specific expressions to learn when I entered the field of education, writing has its own lexicon. And best practices. And communities, some of which embrace new members warmly, but others of which who have forgotten what it’s like to be a novitiate (not in the religious sense), and get all smug and cold-shouldery.

One of the first lessons I have learned in my new endeavor is that “fresh new voice” often doesn’t include a second career baby boomer who fits into a majority classification. I get that, and I support organizations that are trying to bring understanding and fairness to the realm. It hurts, however, that my pieces might not be welcome, or that my ideas might be irrelevant for today’s conversations. At least, that’s what I fear.

All of my topics are nestled beneath an umbrella that encompasses my evolution as a writer. The particular topics that I prefer to write about include: my large, vocal family of Irish American heritage, genealogical discoveries within that same sphere, local history, my two capering canines, insights from my years as an educator, and commentary on what’s going on in the world. I have lots to share, lots to say, and I hope you’ll be just as eager to join the conversation. Maybe even coax me along so that I feel confident when I say that I’m a writer.

Let the adventure begin!