Growing up, I didn’t know if my folks were Democrat or Republican, until I asked one day, probably when I was in high school. My mom told me that we were Democrats; no reason was given as to why except that the Republicans “just had so much money”. They never, ever discussed politics—even when Watergate was happening—at least not in front of us kids. It wasn’t until I married an AP Government teacher that I even began to understand the differences between conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat.
Fast forward to 2020:
Nowadays, I have a very good understanding of the two parties and both what they traditionally stand for and what they have come to stand for according to mainstream media, specialized media, social media, and average Joe media. In my opinion, they have both moved as far from center as they can and have been hijacked by the furthest wings of their supporters.
I long for a moderate party that supports my views which are a mix of (the best ideas, of course) of each party. That’s all a pipe dream, naturally, as the battle for America in this election commences.
What modern-day politics has become is nothing but sound bites, video clips, and seeing who can shout the loudest. The articles, op-ed pieces, and books about this topic are legion. There is a complete and utter lack of civil discourse on ANY topic. Our “leaders” model this behavior for us as there is little-to-no bipartisan support for anything in Congress. Media outlets willfully present “facts” in ways which use all the fallacies of reasoning I used to teach about in my Theory of Knowledge class.
Via my social media outlets, I have become hyper-aware that I have friends who are ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative. There are still a majority, thank goodness, of whose politics I am completely unaware. Still, in this vitriolic environment, politics is what loads of people are talking about—much more than they did 30 years ago. My own sweet parents, who never were political in the home in which I grew up, are consumed with this election. People everywhere have shifted from having an interest in politics to being upset daily by what is happening in our country. Please do not misunderstand—I am not advocating hiding one’s head in the sand. I am not advocating for you to not stand by your convictions. I’m not even saying that it’s bad to share your political views. I AM saying that we ALL need to rethink our interactions on the internet–especially those that are political in nature. The behavior of the average American toward politics has shifted dramatically since the advent of social media–and not in a good way.
Unfortunately, the form that “an interest in politics” takes on social media is simply SCREAMING INTO THE VOID. It seems that EVERYONE is angry. EVERYONE is pointing a finger at someone else. EVERYONE is trying to make a point in the hopes of swaying others—sometimes shaming them—over to their point of view. THIS NEVER WORKS. When one is so convicted that their way is the only way and everything else is hooey, how can there be common ground?
Rather than having a logical debate or thoughtful conversation, people seem to want their voice heard BUT NO ONE IS LISTENING. No one is interested in hearing a different viewpoint (despite pleas to the contrary)—least of all to someone who disagrees with them. Trollers who just want to get into arguments for arguments’ sake are lurking in every comment section. Newsflash: No one is going to actually change their mind. All the screaming and stamping of feet just adds more chaos both to the ether and to our dinner tables. No one likes to be preached at, yelled at, or to be treated with derision. If you are serious about changing someone’s mind, teach them by example. Do more practicing what you preach rather than preaching.
We recently watched “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix; what a sorry state of affairs. I highly recommend that you check it out and then take a good, long look in the mirror at what you are feeding your mind and how you are framing your thinking. The confirmation bias that most of us are guilty of engaging in when we choose a news source, the existence of malicious bots and other fake accounts, and the fact that we literally cannot believe what we SEE anymore, is sickening.
Click here for an article about how faked videos are so good that you think they’re real:
It doesn’t HAVE to be this way. Recently, my husband and I had a very thoughtful, considered conversation with another couple with whom we are friends. The discussion centered around mail-in voting. Between the 4 of us, at least 3 different opinions were shared on the topic. We offered up questions, possible scenarios, evidence for why we thought what we were thinking, analogies, and the like. NO ONE BECAME ANGRY. We didn’t come to a complete consensus, but did agree that the issue was perhaps more complicated than we had each considered on our own. We respect one another. We heard one another. There was no void. And there surely wasn’t any screaming.
Discourse of this type is mostly lacking—certainly in our government—but also in our personal interactions, especially those on social media. It seems that those who aren’t screaming, are busy sneering at their fellow man. Both sides see the other as being incapable of logical thought or reasoning toward a logical outcome. In my own household, I lean a little bit one way and my husband leans a little bit the other. Mostly we agree. Still, in this climate, it is so very difficult to talk to my life-partner, the guy who makes me laugh, the father of my children, without it becoming heated. We have had to make a concerted effort to control our emotions when we discuss this mess—even though we mostly agree. Whew.
Oh, how I wish that EVERYTHING, from what kind of coffee you drink to your favorite sports figure weren’t politicized. I long for a societal climate where respect is the byword and “public servant” is taken seriously and literally as a career choice.
I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking that simply not re-electing this president will turn the tide back to civility. Unfortunately, he is not the only one guilty of petulant, vindictive behavior in Washington. Our screaming, sneering, and stamping goes much deeper than our elected officials–but they’re not helping.
If you build it
There will be no civility in politics or otherwise if there is no energy spent on building relationships. This is my husband’s premise, and he is right. Relationships need to be repaired and forged across every damn aisle in society. By building respectful, healthy relationships, there is a prayer of affecting lasting change. Without relationships, THERE IS NO CHANGE. Without relationships, there is no hope for a different, better, great America. Let me be clear: you can differ on ANY issue and still not hate the person who differs from you. You can differ in your political views and still treat others as you wish to be treated. The Golden Rule: it’s a thing.
I plead with all of us to not scream, whether figuratively or literally, but to try to have meaningful, thoughtful conversations about today’s issues. Having these conversations face-to-face is paramount, as is not becoming angry. And, even if you aren’t talking about important issues, try to find the common ground to build some semblance of a relationship with those with whom you differ. You might just find out that you have more in common than you think.
I’ll leave you with this: a list of people who got it right–they built relationships with those who differ politically from them and were the better for it:
Here in Ohio, on the easternmost verge of the Midwest, we aren’t known for being flashy. Just take a look at our governor and you’ll know that immediately. Governor Mike DeWine, a bespectacled, calm, public servant, is winning at leadership through this pandemic; he is not doing so through bluster and flash, but rather through measured tone, solid decision-making, and humility. Governor DeWine’s two sidekicks in his daily press conferences are Lt Governor Jon Husted and Director of the Ohio Department of Health, Dr. Amy Acton.
No matter your politics, (and please, let’s just leave politics out of this), all are sincere examples of our Buckeye can-do attitude. In fact, all three are the perfect representatives for my state in this time of uncertainty. As they’ve received national and international attention for their extraordinary leadership, I started thinking about why people seem so surprised. The truth is, folks just don’t know that much about Ohio, but think they know all they need to. We are in flyover country, after all. What could we possibly have to offer? To educate a bit about my home, here is a love letter to Ohio, inspired by Mike, Jon, and Amy, three solid Buckeyes.
Usually we’re known for three things: being important in election years, our rabid Ohio State University fans, and being boring. Well, how’s boring treating you now?
Boring is starting to look pretty darn good. Boring means humble, reserved, knowing when to ask for the advice of professionals with expertise. Boring means not being Chicken Little, not belittling others to make yourself look “better”, and it most definitely means having the guts to make tough decisions. It means the ability to empathize with people who are sacrificing. God bless the Governor, Lt Jon, Dr. Amy, and Fran DeWine and her homemade masks. They are authentic. They take the “servant” part of public servant to heart.
Apparently, we do have our share of kooks and criminals, as evidenced by the recent harassment of Dr. Amy at her home, BUT the majority of Ohioans are just normal human beings who work hard, care for their families, and believe that tomorrow can be better than today.
We have our share of famous Buckeyes in entertainment and athletics–LeBron James, Rob Lowe, Stephen Spielberg, Jack Nicklaus, Cy Young, Doris Day, Gloria Steinem, Tecumseh, 7 presidents, and so many more. Our greatest pride, however, is that we seem to be especially adept at producing great thinkers.
Our inventors and explorers are second to none: Edison, the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and a whole bunch of people you’ve never heard of, but who have done amazing things. What would our lives be without the automobile, planes, vacuum cleaners, light bulbs, cash registers, MRIs, bar codes, traffic lights, fire departments, hotdogs, or chewing gum? And I’m only scratching the surface! Recently, the crown jewel of our invention and research heritage, Battelle Institute, figured out how to sterilize 80,000 N-95 masks a day so that they could be reused. We needed that in the throes of this pandemic. Abbott Laboratories in Columbus have developed a COVID-19 antibody test which identifies if someone has had the virus and has subsequently developed antibodies. They shipped out 4 million tests in April and can run 100-200 tests on their laboratory equipment per hour. Inventing, thinking, and creating are alive and well in the Buckeye State.
Ohio doesn’t have an ocean or mountaintops. We are bordered by a Great Lake and a great river. In between there are rolling hills, plains, a whole lot of farmland, and some cooler-than-you-would-think cities. It will surprise some that our capital, Columbus, is solidly in the top 20 largest cities in the US. This year it is #16–ranking above Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Miami to name a few. It would seem that its chief flaw is having a common name. It is certainly large enough and influential enough to have lost its last name (Ohio) a while ago, but since there are 22 OTHER cities named the same in the US, it is sometimes still impossible to say one is from Columbus without adding “Ohio.” Believe me, I’ve tried.
For the last 25 years of my 32 year teaching career, I taught in a district that attracted well-heeled families when they were transferred to Columbus. Invariably, if they moved from someplace more “exciting”, they bemoaned how “boring” Columbus was. I became an unofficial cheerleader for our great state in the hopes of persuading them to see the same beauty I did.
Farmland in Ohio
Maumee Bay State Park on Lake Erie
Foothills of the Appalachians
A lake in one of our state parks
Plains in the western part of Ohio
The thing is, I don’t have to see Pike’s Peak, the Statue of Liberty, or the Grand Canyon to see beauty. I have seen all those landmarks as well as many others, but they don’t have a monopoly on beauty. They are awe-inspiring, to be sure, but not all beauty has to take your breath away. Sometimes beauty is found in a quiet, unassuming cornfield or river. There is nothing more beautiful than a tranquil place to sip a cup of tea, listen to the birds, and watch the sun rise. Ohio is like that.
We don’t have a lot of dramatic places, but we do have a few noteworthy destinations and claims to fame. There are two wonderful amusement parks, including the roller coaster capital of the world, Cedar Point. The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland; the Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton. We have many professional sports teams: the Browns, the Bengals, the Blue Jackets, the Cavaliers, the Crew, the Indians, the Reds. We have a lot of universities and wonderful small colleges–137 to be exact, including The Ohio State University Buckeyes, perennially one of the top three largest universities in the US.
Our state park system includes 75 lovely locations; we have one national park–Cuyahoga Valley NP. These parks range from the Appalachian Foothills to the plains left behind when the glaciers receded eons ago. The message here is that the Ohio landscape is varied; what she lacks in dramatic beauty, she makes up for in infinite simplicity. You can see everything in Ohio from deep gorges and sandstone formations to open-skied plains reaching miles into the distance.
Not only do we offer the pastoral, but also the urban. The restaurant and entertainment scene in our big cities—Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, Dayton– is comparable to anyplace.
A first time visitor to the big three would most likely be very surprised at how sophisticated they really are. I don’t say this lightly–I have visited many, many metropolitan meccas, (NYC and Madrid in the last 6 months alone) and what our Ohio cities have to offer is comparable in many ways. That, and they’re much easier to live in.
There’s No Place Like Home
All the things that make Ohio so wonderful aren’t necessarily the things that one thinks of first when naming things that are wonderful. Ohio has common sense. We have humility. We care about our fellow man. We do what needs to be done. We are responsible. We are friendly. Our open Midwestern faces readily smile and lend a helping hand. We do what is asked of us. We work hard. Ohio is home.
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There has been much written already about how this pandemic has and will continue to change us. As an eternal optimist, I am hopeful that we will be changed for the better, but know that often times our memories are woefully short. For those who are sick (or WILL become sick) and for those trying to heal them, this is a terrible, terrible time. For those who are “just” staying home, however, the time can be used for good.
Who Are We Without Our Busy-ness?
While difficult, many families can benefit from time together, more time outside taking walks, and just generally having their calendars cleared of “busy-ness.”
Knowing how to treasure time together is wonderful. Maybe now is the time to work on things we’ve neglected because of that unhealthy obsession with “busy-ness”—fitness, hobbies, reading, home improvements, and the like. Our propensity in the U.S. to over-schedule ourselves has been dashed with a metaphorical bucket of cold water. May we think twice before going back to the same level of mindless activity.
Here are a few more changes to our national psyche that I hope we keep as we eventually move past this crisis.
Thankfulness and Appreciation for the Work of Others
It goes without saying that we must have appreciation for those who put themselves in harm’s way for the greater good. Our healthcare workers, from those who work to keep hospitals safe and disinfected, to those who are doctors and nurses, are those whom we must profoundly thank in these times of crisis. Thank goodness that they have the calling to do what they do–anytime, for anyone. We are grateful.
I also see folks expressing thankfulness online to their child’s teachers. Those teachers are tasked with the very difficult job of continuing to engage young minds despite challenging circumstances. Of course there are the parents who have always been supportive of their child’s teachers, but the real change that I hope happens is for those who previously thought that teaching was for those who “can’t”. You remember that old trope? “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Well, this virus has hopefully shown a whole lot of doers that they can’t teach; teaching is an art, not a task for the uninspired. It, too, is a calling, not a job.
We must realize just how important ALL THE WORKERS are. There is no work that isn’t noble and necessary—whether it’s a need or something that makes life more enjoyable. In this pandemic atmosphere, everyday heroes are our checkout clerks at the grocery store, the janitors and custodians cleaning our schools and buildings for the eventual return of the workforce, and the delivery and warehouse persons who are somehow keeping the supply chain alive and well.
There is so much honor in these jobs and more—the list is infinite. And how about the things we are missing? Our hairdressers, a favorite food server or bartender, our friends in the arts? All of humanity in its infinite variety makes this big blue marble tick and hum along. I hope I never hear again that a parent has unrealistic hopes for their child to go to a “good” college and get a “good” job. ALL jobs are good and necessary. There is HONOR in all work. There is prestige in work and there is importance. One need not have prestige to be important; misplaced prestige is bad for society. We would do well to remember this.
New Businesses and Ways to “Be”
Proving once again that American ingenuity is not dead, this pandemic has brought a new wave of jobs and unique approaches for connection and socialization. When we found out that we’d need to keep our kids learning at home, there was an onslaught on social media of interesting things to do—virtual tours of museums, doodling with Mo Willems, free exercise classes with the Fenix System, and on and on. Out of necessity, new jobs have sprung up: the delivery of prescriptions to homes, bread (and donuts!) delivery from our favorite bakery, Schneider’s in Westerville, virtual entertainment and socialization for nursing home residents, to name a few. We have also seen the glaring need for manufacturing to return to the United States. A global economy is good, but not at the expense of not being able to produce our own products both to be prepared and when under duress. Hopefully, a renewed interest in manufacturing and the industrial sector will find fertile ground in our communities.
Besides the business aspect, neighbors are reaching out to help one another in meaningful ways. My daughter is recently returned to Ohio from New York City. Before she left the city, she saw a kind lady posting flyers saying she was willing to run errands for the older people in their apt building.The woman was organizing an army of volunteers to help in any way necessary. Here in Westerville, we have our own armies in place already: Rick Bannister organized our Neighborhood Bridges brigade in January of 2017
and has since spread the model to 25 other communities around the United States. We have the Westerville Area Resource Ministry which provides food and support to area residents. The challenge to which we must rise is to continue to do MORE than what we already had in place and to do it on an absolutely personal level.
Be a good neighbor, be a good daughter or son, be a good human being.
Qualified Leadership in Times of Trouble
Lastly, we here in Ohio are being led through this critical time by two folks you might have heard of: Governor Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton. No matter your political affiliation, you have to admit that Governor DeWine has shown tremendous leadership. Early on, I read that Dr. Acton was the last person in the cabinet for DeWine to hire. He felt he had to search and search to get just the right person. Further, in previous administrations, the Director of Health wasn’t even a health professional. DeWine wanted to change that and have a bonafide physician in charge of health matters for our state.
It seems ludicrous that in 2020, actually having someone be QUALIFIED to lead in a position is revolutionary. Why WOULDN’T expertise in an area be an absolute requirement in order to hold an office in that area? The last way that I would like for us to change permanently would be for it to be a requirement for anyone holding a cabinet/leadership office in government, have to have EXPERIENCE, EXPERTISE, and CREDENTIALS for that position. In other words, the U.S. Secretary of Education would need to have experience working in public education before being able to lead the entire system. I’m sure there are other examples—that one just springs to mind for some reason.
We Must Keep our Heads Up
In closing, we will be okay. In some ways, the pandemic is like a market correction, but for social issues. We will get through this. On the other side, though? Can we make it look, feel, and be better than it was before? THAT is my challenge to you, me and everyone else.
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Illusory truth effect: the tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure.
In other words, it is a lie that has been told so many times that we just accept it. We forget to be skeptical. We forget to examine. We forget to question. One of the biggest lies that has been promulgated on the American populace is that our public educational system is broken. All of it. Everywhere. The folks who love to bandy this about also want us to believe that the United States is lagging woefully behind the rest of the world in education. Usually, this claim and its supporting data are accompanied by screaming headlines, hand-wringing, and the gnashing of teeth. Throw in some rending of garments, and you’ve got yourself a crisis of biblical proportions.
It’s true, some individual schools and a few school districts are, indeed, in crisis. Schools anywhere are a reflection of the culture in which they exist. My premise is that this is NOT the epidemic that we are led to believe.
I just waded through several reports on international education rankings. They all say (the authors wringing their hands all the while) that the United States lags in math and science. The United States has been slowly going downhill since the 70s. The United States isn’t a world leader in education. Blah blah blah.
While it is important to share information with other countries—most importantly to share GREAT ideas for the good of all—it is absolutely NOT important to compare ourselves to them with these scores. We have become so used to hearing the mantra that our schools are failing, our teachers are failing, our kids are failing, that we actually believe it.
I, and a whole mess of other teachers, however, have actually BEEN in schools around our great nation and we’re here to tell you that MOST schools, teachers, and students are NOT FAILING. In fact, we’re performing MIRACLES—every day! The fact is, school is a good deal more complicated than it ever was when our policy makers attended it. The fact is, the American family is more complicated than it’s ever been and the effects of that affect our schools. The fact is, some schools are set up for failure because of harmful policies and practices–too many kids in the classroom, not enough resources, parents who are not doing their jobs. But rather than go into an explanation of all the ways schools are doing a great job and increasing rigor well past the high water mark of 1975 –DESPITE the odds being stacked against them–I’d like to take this in a different direction…
We’re Not #1 and You Shouldn’t Care!
1. The rankings do not compare apples to apples.No other country on Earth has the diversity in both socio-economic and ethnic traits that the U.S. does. Yes, some of our European friends are dealing with immigration NOW the way we have for years, but the sheer size of the United States rather diminishes the comparison. Why on earth do we care if we rank behind Luxembourg in reading? Or China in math? Or Sweden in science? Does it really matter? How many people does Luxembourg even have? 15? Just kidding, they have a whopping 602,005–about as many as Baltimore, MD–the 30th largest city in the U.S. Further, why would we want to emulate polluted, lead-toy-making China? No amount of great math scores make ANY of that okay. All three of these example countries have either a highly homogenous population OR virtually no immigration–COMPLETELY unlike the United States.
2. WHY doesn’t the media examine any of these reports by digging a little deeper. Why isn’t the media pointing out that even though Singapore scored higher than the United States, it is a tiny homogenous island. It has about as much in common with the United States as my Aunt Fanny has with Albert Einstein.
3. The only statistics we should worry about are our own. Yearly improvement is a good goal. Improving one’s own classroom, one’s own school, one’s own community should be the bellwether, not comparing ourselves to educational systems that have little in common with ours. In the U.S. it is not uncommon for our schools to be tasked with the job of raising the children that are sent to them “just” for an education. The internet is rife with blogs and articles illustrating how schools are taking on more and more parental roles; trust me when I say that schools and teachers do NOT want to be raising your children. The sad truth is, however, that if parents won’t care for their children, schools and teachers feel that they must. Here is a related piece from Psychology Today:
4.Many of the countries to which we are compared have a completely different set of values in place. Finland, for example, PAYS its teachers well. France, for example, feeds its children nutritious meals–and doesn’t put up with all that “picky eater” hooey. Australia, for example, has pre-natal home visits for children up through age 3.
On our Camino last fall in Northern Spain, we had the serendipitous opportunity to meet some wonderful folks from Australia. Anne is a registered nurse there whose job it is to work with families and new parents from prenatal to AGE THREE. It is a government funded program—free to the participants—which supports the prenatal health of the baby as well as those important first years. She not only meets with the families, but she also makes home visits. What a perfect time to see how they are coping! Is there ample nutrition in the household? Is it a clean, safe environment? Is there familial support? What habits is the family engendering with their young one? Are there books? Do they understand that they MUST read to their child? Do they understand the importance of a sleep schedule, etc. According to Anne, everyone takes advantage of this wonderful program—not just the poor. Getting children off to a strong start before they are even born is a priority. What a change THAT would make for our schools, don’t you think?
Opportunity for All Is about More Than Education
5. Have you ever wondered how we could have such a robust economy if we weren’t educated? If our schools weren’t doing a lot of things right, our economy would be in the tank, entrepreneurs would be few, and the opportunity to live the American Dream would be dead. I submit to you that while there are still too many families that struggle, this isn’t the fault of the educational system. It’s the fault of policies that make it difficult for folks to afford basic needs. In my hometown, there is a lot of gentrification and building. Virtually none of the housing that is being constructed is for the working poor, but rather for those with deeper pockets. What would happen if there were affordable housing for all? Would we see a dramatic rise in the all-important test scores?
Excellent University System
6. Why do we have so many international students? Because our university system is second to none. I recently became an adjunct professor at The Ohio State University–consistently one of the top five largest universities in the country. I don’t know what the actual number of international students is, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that it is in the thousands. Just yesterday in the short walk to my classroom, I heard at least 8 different groups of students speaking a language other than English. American students also benefit from our amazing university system. More kids are going to college than ever before; there is a need for a conversation about the fact that NOT everyone should go to college, but that is not the subject of this piece.
Healthy Immigrant Growth
7. WHY do so many people want to move to the US? It’s not because our schools are “failing”! It is because this always has been, is, and ever shall be the land of opportunity. Even though our teachers are asked to be parents, counselors, role models, and care-givers as well as educators, they are making it work. Our immigrant families recognize this.
What can we do to improve?
I. Help Families in Distress
We MUST teach our most vulnerable how to parent. We MUST reach children when they are babies. We MUST front load the information that a stable, safe home environment is absolutely crucial to the well-being of our students and their success in school. Reading is the hinge-pin of a good educational system, but reading starts in the home. Behavioral issues take away from time spent learning; how to behave, control impulses, and respect others starts in the home.
II. Accept our National Identity
We must also own who we are in all our mess. We have a vast country filled with every type of situation imaginable. One size does not fit all.In the U.S. we are adept at including even the most challenging students and giving them opportunities to succeed to the best of their ability.I will never forget when we had a delegation from Beijing visit the high school where I taught. As is normal in the United States, I had several students in wheelchairs and/or with aides. One of the Chinese visitors whispered to me that in China, those students wouldn’t be allowed in a “normal” classroom. Is THAT who we want to be?
III. Eradicate the Testing Culture
We must stop worshipping tests and the “data” that they collect. We must allow schools and teachers to carry out their mission according to their trained expertise. We must stop teaching to a test. We must worry about improving ourselves year to year—no matter what is happening in Timbuktu.
IV. Involve Educators in the Process
Our politicians MUST stop making educational policy without input from the primary stake-holders, i.e. teachers/students. Unless they are willing to swallow their hubris and ask for help in understanding, our government will never be able to enact the necessary policy to actually work on the problems we do have. Raping our wonderful public school system with “school choice” and “vouchers” is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Voting carefully for elected officials who support our long and illustrious tradition of educating ALL is paramount. Having elected representatives who have actually attended public school is critical to their understanding.
Education for ALL = American Dream
I am aware that not all schools everywhere are perfect. You know why they’re not? Because people aren’t perfect and schools are composed of people, warts and all. If we could just set schools and students up for success—less testing, more positive parental involvement, stable family environments, a government that doesn’t fight the educational system at every turn—who knows what might happen? This is MY American Dream.
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the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.“20th century popular culture”
a refined understanding or appreciation of culture.“men of culture”
the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.“Caribbean culture”
the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.“the emerging drug culture”
Culture is as much a part of your identity as the hair on your head—except you think about it a lot less . We ALL participate in multiple cultures while for the most part being completely unaware of it. Often, we think of other places as having a specific culture, whereas our own home is absent of it. To some, the idea of “culture” has become a sword to wield in defense of their roots. Conversely, it isn’t unusual for one group to disparage the culture of another group—largely without understanding the first thing about the “other”.
Think about all the cultures that you, individually, are a member of: the human race, your country-region-state-particular part of state, your city, town, or rural home, your ancestry, your family, your job, your place of worship, your clubs, your friend group. So many norms and customs go into the make up of any and all of these cultures.
Part 1: Try the Food
I am reminded of the first Christmas I spent with the Kentucky side of my husband’s family. We had just gotten engaged and were still in that era of trying to spend the whole holiday as we had previously as single people. In other words–we managed to see everyone across two states. For a noon meal at my Great-Aunt Dorothy’s in Baltimore, Ohio, we had a lovely meal of ham, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, green beans, iced tea, and a bunch of other deliciousness. We then hopped in the car to head to Richmond, Kentucky where we ate another delicious meal at Dan’s grandma’s house. Lillian, in the tradition of Southern cooks, I was about to find out, loved to cook with salt about as much as she loved to cook with sugar. I filled my plate with ham, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, green beans, iced tea, and a bunch of other deliciousness. The potatoes and rolls were about the same, but the ham, beans and tea rocked my world. Rather, they rocked my tastebuds. Sooooooo salty! Except the tea, of course, which was soooooo sweet!
My point in all of this is that we were only one state away, and yet the cuisine had changed pretty markedly. If the food was this different, surely there were other cultural differences too. It has been a mostly wonderful, but sometimes confusing, journey to learn how cultures that appear quite similar might actually harbor profound differences when you take a closer look.
Besides cuisine, there have been variations in celebrations, language, habits, expectations, and values. I’m sure that anyone who has had close contact with friends or extended family from different regions of the country can attest to what I’m talking about.
Part 2: Learn the Language
As a Spanish teacher, I devoted my career to educating about Spanish-speaking cultures. Inevitably, there was a topic that my American students just couldn’t wrap their heads around;it was “weird”. My standard explanation was that it wasn’t “weird”, just different.
Part of my mission as a language teacher was that I firmly believe that one cannot appreciate another culture without speaking the language—at least rudimentarily. The language of any given culture tells you a whole lot about the people that speak it. Courtesy, humor, belief systems, and behavior are all tied inextricably and intricately to language. For example, in Spanish, there is a verb mood and tense that does not exist in English. The Imperfect Subjunctive (as my students will remember fondly—lol) is used to express actions that the speaker wanted to happen (but they didn’t), or that the speaker had some sort of emotion about, or that the speaker recommended, or doubted—in the past. This tense is also used to express very polite communications—the difference between “I want” and “I would like”. I could go on and on with my explanation of this, obviously, but I mention it here to illustrate the fact that there are nuances of expression in different languages that reveal cultural intricacies. Without knowing the language, you cannot truly know a different culture. If one is referencing a difference in culture in which the language is shared, there are still differences in vocabulary and experience which require interpretation.
Part 3: Appreciate the Arts
Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Hugh Jackman in concert. During the show, Hugh told the story of helping to build homes in the Outback as a young man. The performance included beautiful footage of the Outback accompanied by two didgeridoo musicians and two aboriginal vocalists. Their music transported us from an arena in Detroit, to an exotic place on the other side of the world. It. was. cool.
At the end of the piece, Hugh asked them to say a few words and he explained that his purpose in presenting them was to try to heal our broken world with “reconciliation through culture.” Wow. I was dumbstruck. What a wonderful concept—share your culture with someone in a non-threatening, non-in-your-face way and at the same time open their hearts to a different way of seeing the world.
Part 4: Leave Your Comfort Zone
Over the next weeks, as I ruminated about Hugh’s words, I remembered listening to Alexandra Billings at the Human Rights Campaign Gala in Columbus, 2018. Her message was about positively affecting culture (in this case anti-LGBTQ culture) by extending a hand and meeting people on a personal level. Her premise was that if one can humanize and personalize the greater culture of a group, it becomes less threatening and more familiar. I. loved. it.
I’ve written before about the importance of travel to combat bigotry and its ugly friends, all the ‘isms. You really don’t have to travel far, though, to find a culture that is “foreign” to you. Engaging in an experience that is new to you is likely a good place to start: go to a museum, attend an educational program at your library, volunteer at a food kitchen, etc.
1 + 2 + 3 + 4= Harmony
Isn’t the lack of familiarity the reason that anyone fears anything from another culture? Because it’s “weird”? Once it becomes familiar, however, the “weirdness” rather dissipates. One might even start to enjoy and accept. Goodness knows, I’ve learned to love salty ham and sweet tea! I also love philosophical discussions in Spanish and listening to extraordinary music from the other end of the world. I have dear friends from all over the world and all over the spectrum. My life is all the richer because of all these experiences.
As a society, we can make more progress, more growth, if we extend a hand, try to educate, and learn about each other before judging. In fact, don’t judge at all.Welcome others into your culture and be OPEN to theirs. Look for new experiences. The worst thing that’ll happen is that you’ll be changed for the better–and like Glinda and Elphaba sing in “Wicked”–you’ll be changed for good.
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I first fell in love with Spain in the summer of ’85 during my study abroad in Madrid. The program that Bowling Green University ran at that time (I attended Ohio Northern, but we didn’t have a study abroad option then) included intensive classes at the University of Madrid in culture, history, geography, and language, as well as fantastic field trips to nearly every corner of Spain on the weekends. My love affair continued in my life as a Spanish teacher, as I led student trips all over Spain. When my son (also a Northern grad) student-taught at the American School of Valencia in his final semester of under-grad, we took a family trip to see him and loved every minute.
It was THIS trip to Spain, however, to walk El Camino de Santiago from León to Santiago, that crystallized for me what it is about Spain that makes me love it so much. My admiration is not only for the physical aspects of Spain, but also for the ways that Spaniards do things, how they live, and the sense of community that is imbued in all aspects of Spanish life. Some of my observations are rather superficial, while others delve deeper into the Spanish weltanschaung—their world view. Read on for all the ways that Spain hasn’t changed since I first saw her and loved her, and for the ways she speaks to me.
Sometimes, those who haven’t been somewhere, imagine it to be all kinds of things it isn’t. The geography of Spain is one of those things. Spain is about the size of the state of
Texas and within its boundaries you will find nearly every kind of topography possible–mountains, coast, desert, fertile valleys, plains, broad rivers, forests. What is most surprising, perhaps, is that Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe–second only to Austria. After walking the Camino, I can attest to this firsthand!
Arte Público e Historia
Spain is chockfull of public art, monuments to history, and beautiful architecture. Because of its Catholic roots, every town is clustered around the local cathedral or church with a central plaza somewhere nearby. It seems that every locality has a legend attached to it that is not only available to read about on a placard, but also to hear about from one of the locals. Past and present are blended together in a tapestry of culture. The history of each place, rather than being forgotten or pushed to the periphery, is celebrated with both education (signage, monuments, etc) and the town festival.
Upon closer examination
So many small things make up the larger picture of the way Spaniards do things. Their eating habits—both what and how haven’t changed. The way they greet each other, the centuries-old door knockers in the shapes of ladies’ hands, the abundance of flowers around their homes, the pride in regional customs,
The door knockers are known as the Hand of Fátima–due to Moorish influence.
These door knockers are a common sight in Spain.
The Hand of Fátima protects one against the evil eye.
and how in a country that is the size of Texas, one can sense a different culture every hundred miles or so. All these things remain static in daily life in Spain; she hasn’t changed in the time I’ve known her.
Spain first introduced me to tapas (or pinxtos–pronounced “peenchos”–in the Northeast) all those years ago. Not only is it delicious to try a small portion of something, but it is beautiful as well. The Spanish custom of including a small bite of food with an aperitif is wonderful and smart at the same time. In the foodie capital of Madrid, grazing tapas at the Mercado San Miguel is an experience for all the senses.
Tapas in Madrid’s Mercado San Miguel.
A selection of olives in San Miguel.
Tapas in Madrid.
Examining tapas in Santiago.
In 3 weeks, we never once used plasticware of any sort. Every single restaurant, pub, or glorified concession stand on The Way used glasses. Silverware. Real plates. Cups and Saucers. Not only did this reduce waste, but it also is just more civilized. Café con leche most definitely tastes better in a real cup.
The silverware they use is also different from that found in the US. They have “normal” knives, forks, and spoons, of course, but they also have smaller spoons for coffee, smaller forks for dessert, and larger spoons for soup or other items like cereal. The smaller spoons and forks have the psychological effect on me of making me feel like I am in a more elegant era or place—and indeed, I think I was. The smaller fork surely indicated fewer calories, but also seemed to say—slow down. Savor every bite. Eat in smaller bites and enjoy it. Eating my caldo gallego with a large spoon was satisfying; this soup is hearty, nourishing, and deserves to be eaten with gusto.
The food is, generally speaking, a Mediterranean diet which I think we’re all familiar with, so I won’t go into detail on that, here. What remains the same in Spain from ’85 that is so wonderful is the lack of convenience foods. I think they exist, I just don’t think they’ve caught on. A primary example of “real” goodness is the orange juice. Every bar (and I’m using the word in the Spanish sense here—please don’t picture a place where people are getting drunk) had an orange juice machine—for squeezing FRESH orange juice. So delicious!
Café con Leche. I don’t even drink coffee in the States unless it is labelled as “mocha” and has whipped cream on top. In Spain, though, I drink it every morning and sometimes at midday. They make it strong, only fill a cup halfway, and then fill the cup with heated milk. Artificial sweeteners haven’t found their way into the Spanish diet either, so sugar is an option that I, and everyone else always take advantage of. Delicious. Starbucks has no idea.
Another item from a more elegant era is the way that they wrap purchases individually. This isn’t at the grocery or pharmacy, but rather at shops selling any sort of specialty gift item—jewelry, glassware, trinkets, etc. They generally have wrapping paper and tape handy to wrap up every.single.item for you. It makes one feel pampered and like each parcel is a precious gift. The time taken to do this says something else about Spain—slow down. Little gestures matter. There is no one huffing and puffing behind you in line because the clerk is spending a few minutes taking care of your purchases in such an intimate way. Enjoy the ride.
Beneath the surface
How Spaniards live is vastly different from life here in the States. The most striking is the incredible sense of community that is part and parcel of Spanish life. As we walked for 200 miles across North-Central Spain, we noticed that nearly all homes are in a village or town—VERY rarely is there a home standing by itself in the countryside as it would be in the United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what this said about the core values of each country. A core American value is independence, even solitude or isolation—indicating strength and ability to us; a core Spanish value is conviviality—indicating community, togetherness, enjoyment. Therefore, Spaniards live in towns or cities almost exclusively and to this day gather on the plaza in the center of town in the late afternoon (or any of several plazas in larger cities) to stroll, have an aperitif, meet up with friends, hear the news of the day, let the children run and play. They do this all year long and at all ages—which brings me to another observation.
The Spanish have mastered the art of multi-generational living. Because they are living in population centers, their older folks are still a part of everything. Nothing stops an older Spaniard from taking his or her evening stroll. There are canes and arms to lean on, but they keep at it. BECAUSE they keep at it, there are able to keep at it. Obesity (not someone being a little plump, but true obesity) appears to be non-existent in Spain, I can only surmise from this active life-style and the diet. Octogenarians are often seen with a younger person for support to get out and do their stroll, their shopping, their visiting with the neighbors.
The abuelas(grandmothers) also haven’t changed in 34 years. I don’t know what age is the cut off for turning into an abuela, but the “look” remains the same: short hair, blouse, skirt, sweater, hose, pumps, pocketbook, necklace and earrings. I saw a very, very few who were wearing pants and being sassy, but by and large—abuelas haven’t changed! Please enjoy my album of abuelas:
The people—and this includes hundreds of interactions over 34 years—are simply kind. They are always willing to help, to chat, to interact, to engage, to debate, to joke, to guide. They are a social society. They even have a word for sitting around the dinner table chatting after eating—la sobremesa. Wonderful.
In my previous piece, “Angels on the Camino”, I talked at length about Mercedes and José, two wonderful Spaniards with whom we enjoyed a few sobremesas. There were other, shorter, interactions that I would like to describe to give a sense of the Spanish psyche.
A philosophical taxi ride
The day before we were to begin our Camino, we had to transfer by taxi from Madrid to León. The driver, Estéban, came from a long line of taxistas and was proud to be part of his family’s company. The drive from Madrid was roughly 3.5 hours; Dan speaks no Spanish. Well, Dan can order a beer, a gin and tonic, and say that he likes “fútbol”, but that’s about it. So Estéban and I set the world to rights. Around 30 years of age, Estéban and I covered soooo many topics—including Dan as we could. The one that sticks in my mind, however, was our discussion of immigration and bigotry. Although the area of Spain we visited primarily on this trip does not have many immigrants, the coastal cities (and Madrid, of course) have changed drastically since ’85, what with Spain’s proximity to Africa. Spain, once an insular country, is dealing with what we in the States have long had to wrestle. To welcome immigrants and refugees while keeping control of the floodgates is a delicate balance that needs attention, certainly. Further, as we delved into the racist aspects of this discussion, this young man said, very resolutely, “Para combatir la intolerancia, hay que viajar.” Yes! To combat bigotry, one MUST travel! When we SEE the plight of others, when we EXPERIENCE some of their story, when we KNOW the truth of a situation, THEN we can understand. THEN we cease to fear “the other” and realize that humanity, in all its messy glory, can work things out. If only we could work together and make the effort to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Eavesdropping can get you everywhere
On the day we arrived in Santiago, we obtained our number to get our compostela—the diploma that certified that we had completed the Camino. The pilgrim’s office serves around 1500 people a day—our numbers were 1013 and 1014. We had a bit of a wait. Luckily we could monitor the progress of the line via an app, so we did some shopping, did some eating, and eventually settled at a café along the street to the pilgrim’s office to pass the time.
At the table next to us were three friends in their 30’s, two women and a man. As I gradually tuned in to their discussion and began to shamelessly eavesdrop, I learned that they were discussing the particular usage of a phrase in English. Antonio, the chief complainant, was describing a telephone interaction he had had in English (which he speaks fluently) in which the person helping him said, “I appreciate your frustration.” This infuriated Antonio who had apparently never been on the phone with Time Warner, and wasn’t aware of this usage of the verb “to appreciate”. His learning had taught him only the cognate to “apreciar”—to enjoy. I let this go on for a bit, and then finally turned to them to interrupt and educate.
As is often the case in Spain and at outdoor cafés, they welcomed my intrusion into their conversation; what ensued was a spirited discussion of linguistics, “false friends”—those seeming cognates which have different meanings in different languages (*embarazada” does NOT mean embarrassed, for example, but rather “pregnant”), and how the guy on the phone with Antonio really wasn’t an asshole. My only regret from the whole trip was that I didn’t give Antonio my email address so that he could ask me further English questions (and I, Spanish questions to him) should the need arise. Our connection was brief but intense. I wish that I had had the foresight to extend it.
What is the larger lesson in all of this rambling? Perhaps that there is more than one way to eat a meal, more than one way to live a life, and more than one way to view the world. As for me, my glimpses into Spanish life have made mine all the richer. ¡Hay que viajar!
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In September, 2019, my husband, Dan, and I walked 200 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. We began in León and finished in Santiago 15 days later (which
included two rest days). Walking our Camino had been a dream of mine for around 30 years; I taught about the Camino’s importance culturally in my life as a Spanish teacher. After watching “The Way” (the movie about the Camino by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen), Dan was game to walk it with me.
To give a bit of background: El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain. The first recorded pilgrims walked in the year 821, A.D. According to legend, St James, apostle of Christ, was beheaded in Jerusalem and his remains were taken by sea to Galicia where he had spread the Good News while alive. His body is buried in the cathedral in Santiago. There are many, many Caminos all over Spain and Europe, all leading to this city.
Dan and I traveled the classic, Camino Francés, which goes from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees of France across Northern Spain to the region of Galicia and Santiago. The whole Camino Francés is 500 miles; we “only” did the last 200.
El Camino, which means “the way” and conveniently also means “the road” is a complete and brilliant metaphor for life. As you walk, there are many accidents—happy and otherwise—to deal with. Regardless of how you feel or what the “weather” is like, you must go on. There are people who briefly shine their light on your steps, never to be seen again. There are others who come in and out of your journey—joyously reuniting and waving adieu, only to meet up again later. Then there are the people with whom you bond on a deeper level who become part of your life. This piece is dedicated to those folks—some ephemeral, some more permanent—who made our Camino, ours.
We spent the summer training for our walk—breaking in our boots, selecting socks, learning how to grease our feet (although Dan never did this), and gradually increasing our mileage and hours of walking each week. What followed in September was at once one of the crowning achievements of our life together and one of the most intensely difficult. Luckily, we were surrounded by humanity in all of its goodness along the Way.
Mercedes and the Roasted Peppers
We began our pilgrimage on Sept 10, setting out from our hotel in León around 8:00 in the morning. It was brisk and blustery as we trekked the 3 miles to get out of town and finally entered the Meseta—that arid region in North-Central Spain with its rolling, wide open vistas. After a solid day of walking, we arrived at our destination in Mazarife and called our Casa Rural (a more full-service bed and breakfast) to come pick us up to take us the remaining distance to their establishment out in the country.
As we walked up to the 200-year-old mill-turned-casa rural from the car, we were greeted by Mercedes and her sister Eva who were sitting at a table in an open air workspace adjacent to a barn. They had just roasted dozens of red peppers on an open fire and were now stripping them of their seeds and stems. Sitting with a beloved female relative on such a fine day working on a project together, looked like bliss to me and I said so. Their rural idyll, the old mill, sat astride a swiftly running, clear river. We soon found out that it wasn’t a river at all, but rather the ingenious irrigation system that the Moors had built 800 years before in their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
To say that Mercedes and I chatted like our tongues were on fire would be an understatement. We learned that Emilio and Martin had stayed there during the making of “The Way” and that Eva had indeed just returned from visiting Emilio in Los Angeles. We talked about fishing in the water rushing under the mill; apparently the week before an otter had come and eaten all the trout. We enjoyed small, yellow, ripe plums from her trees and the jam that she made from them. We discussed her garden in great detail—admiring the baskets and baskets full of tomatoes. I regaled her with the fact that my dad had picked over a thousand cucumbers this year from his vines. We shared how long each had been married—us, 31 years, them—married 45 but together 50, since she was 15 years old. She said that she had only ever “had” one man! In the next life she would have 100’s! What a zest for life they had there in their little corner of the world. Heaven.
Félix and His Sister, the Helpful Hospitalera
Along about the third day or so, we had a REALLY tough descent from El Acebo to Molinaseca. We had started in Rabanal del Camino that morning and made the 12 mile climb and partial descent to El Acebo without incident, but we were tired. My left knee had begun to hurt a bit, but I thought I could handle it. Our hotel reservation for that night was another almost 9 miles ahead in Ponferrada, so we had to move on. After a lovely lunch and rehydration, we headed down the mountain. We were not prepared at all for what we encountered. The terrain resembled the glacial grooves of the rocks found on Kelleys Island, interspersed with great chunks of rock. It was very difficult to walk on, and each step had to be taken purposefully in order to avoid twisting an ankle or falling. Indeed, we saw folks who had fallen and had their faces all bandaged up. This descent aggravated my knee pain to the point that I felt near tears. Dan, too, was experiencing shaking in his left leg which he didn’t tell me about until later.
Somehow we managed to descend five miles of that hellish terrain amidst 90º heat to Molinaseca. Apparently, Molinaseca is a delightful, Roman town. We wouldn’t know. As soon as we arrived (at this point having walked 17 miles in roughly 8-9 hours), I poked my head into the nearest albergue (inn/accommodation). The hospitalera (pilgrim’s innkeeper) took one look at our sweaty, dust-covered selves and insisted that we sit down. I explained to her (in Spanish, of course—hardly anyone in Spain speaks English) that we had come from Rabanal del Camino and needed to get to Ponferrada for our room. She said—“I will take care of it.” Gracias a Dios! I heard her call someone and say, “Hi, it’s me. I have two absolutely exhausted pilgrims here who need to get to Ponferrada. Where are you? Can you come get them?”
The person she was calling was her brother, Félix, who drives a cab and does this kind of work daily. A word here about cabs/taxis: in Spain, taxis are without fail, clean, smoke-free, and safe. The drivers are competent, friendly, and in my experience very well-spoken and educated. They often drive taxis as part of a family business. So. Félix came to pick us up. En route to our destination, he reassured us that we had done the right thing by giving in and riding to our hotel—it wasn’t a mere 3 miles away, but more like 4. With us in the car, he was hailed by two female pilgrims on a corner. They had apparently called for a taxi as well, but theirs hadn’t shown up. Félix called 3 of his brothers in arms to get them a ride—all were busy. He said—“climb on in, I’ll take you after I deliver this couple.” I told him that I thought that was very nice and he said, very seriously, “We have to take care of the pilgrims.” It seemed to me that all the people we met that lived and worked along The Way, took that sentiment to heart. It wasn’t just for the economy, but rather because they truly see it as their calling, their service to God and their service to humanity.
Lost Among the Vines
One afternoon, as we walked through miles and miles of grapevines, laden with sweet, sweet fruit, we missed a turn of the Way—always marked with a yellow arrow and/or a yellow scallop shell, the symbol of St. James. Open bed trucks, filled to the brim with harvested grapes rumbled by periodically, regularly punctuating our view.
After taking some video of such a truck, we heard shouting back and to the left—“OYE! Camino!” I originally thought they were just waving to us as it is habitual for any and all to greet one another on the walk with a “Buen Camino”, but I was wrong. A family harvesting grapes out in the middle of the vineyard was desperately trying to get our attention. One of the women made her way over to us to point out where we had missed a turn. She directed us back, saying that we could have continued on the way we were going, but it would have been much longer. We were very grateful to her—it would have been so easy to just let us walk on. To be apathetic about another’s plight. But instead, like Félix, they took care of the pilgrims. This was a lesson in being alert and helping those that don’t realize they need it.
José, Rosy, and the Miracle of the Wounded Knee
As I mentioned, my left knee had really begun to bother me because of strain. I hadn’t done anything except overuse it on difficult terrain. Dan had K-taped me which helped, but didn’t really give the amount of support that I found I needed. A sassy, flesh-colored brace was what I was in the market for. Unfortunately, this realization came to me as either a) there wasn’t a pharmacy around and b) it was Sunday and the pharmacies were closed. Oh, and by the by, I had also developed the king of all blisters on my heel. I was hurting.
That Monday, September 16, we were slowly progressing our way to Villafranca del Bierzo, when we stopped to take a photo of some sheep, a shepherd, and his watchful canine companion. As we turned to walk on, we were hailed by a Spanish couple. The man, José, said, “I have been watching you” while pointing to his eye. “Can I help you?”
“Yes! Yes! Please help me!”, I exclaimed.
José had some anti-inflammatory spray that he doused my knee in; this enabled me to get to the next largish town that had a pharmacy. There, I got some expert care from one of the pharmacists. A word here about pharmacies in Spain:
Pharmacists are legally able to prescribe medicine and are essentially like a physician’s assistant in the U.S. Every time I visited one (and it was several, let me tell you), they came from behind the counter, discussed my problems with me, and helped me obtain whatever medicine, bandage, therapy I needed. #didntremindmeofourmeijerzombiepharmacistsatall.
I walked out of the pharmacy with the afore-described sassy knee brace, a fresh spritz of the anti-inflammatory and was good.to.go.
A further epiphany about the pharmacy situation in Spain—we encountered several over-the-counter type medicines that we do not have in the U.S. (probably not approved by the F.D.A.), but found them to be wonderful. Apparently there are all sorts of wonderful products readily available in Europe that one can’t find in the good ole U.S. of A. But I digress.
When we met, José was sporting an Alabama hat. ??? Of course, sports fanatic Dan spotted this right away and needed to know why a Spaniard was wearing such a hat. It turns out that José’s brother emigrated to the U.S. five years ago and now manages one of the golf courses around Birmingham. We assured the two of them that when they come to visit Alabama, we Buckeyes can certainly drive the 8-9 hour drive to meet up with them. Then, since we had already shared a café con leche and/or cerveza with José and Rosy, we decided to walk on, but not before sharing contact info.
A few days later, in Sarria, we met up with them for a meal of pulpo (Octopus—don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!) and albariño, a delicious Galician white wine.
As we sat for hours with our friends, José said, “Marla. If you had not been injured and I weren’t daring, we never would have met.” This brought tears to my eyes. What a lesson that was. So many times in life, something really good comes out of something really bad. I was and remain profoundly thankful that I walked with such pain, because that brought Dan and me some of the most precious memories of the Camino and also a blossoming forever-friendship.
For our pulpo y vino lunch, José and Rosy had brought along a young friend that they had met in the intervening days, 30-year-old Juan from Colombia. That afternoon cemented our friendship with him and subsequently brought us 23-year-old Judit from Germany. We remain in contact with these lovely young souls and feel blessed to have walked with them from time to time over several days.
Charo and the Case of the Lost Passport
The most amazing episode of our Camino happened the morning that we arrived in Sarria (and before our pulpo y vino with J y R). Our walk to Sarria wasn’t a long one, but the degree of difficulty was still there. Therefore, it was with glad hearts that we arrived in Sarria and looked forward to a rest day.
We crossed the bridge into town and there was an outreach group of 20-30 somethings
who worked for the Correos (postal system) in Spain.
A quick word about Correos: Along the Camino, the correos perform important tasks like mailing things home, holding packages for pilgrims, holding backpacks for the pilgrims in Santiago (as large packs aren’t allowed in the cathedral), etc.
This particular group was promoting a “Clean Up the Camino” campaign sponsored by Correos. They had some swag to give out and you could take your picture dressed as a medieval pilgrim, etc. In short, it was light-hearted and fun. As we decided to take our pics, I set my pack on a bench and saw that while walking, the zipper had worked itself completely open. Not only that, but my WALLET was GONE! In the wallet were my passport, a credit card, and about 60 euro. Imagine my dismay as I thought I would be physically sick. The wallet could have been ANYWHERE in the last 11 miles. Going back to look for it was a physical impossibility.
Amongst the young people in the outreach group was a woman who was in more of a supervisory capacity. She was very sympathetic and was helpful in telling my shell-shocked face what I would need to do. She stopped and said, “How is your Spanish?” I replied that it was excellent, but I didn’t know where to go, what the process was, and that I was very upset and couldn’t even think. Bless her, she said, “I will take you and stay with you.” As I write this and relive this moment, I have tears in my eyes of thankfulness for Charo Calvo.
So. She and her friend who had a car drove Dan and me to the Guardia Civil (police) to file a report. As we started the process, the officers asked if I had any other documentation—so into the police car Dan and I piled (Charo stayed at the station) and we were off to the hotel with fingers crossed that our bags had arrived with my driver’s license in them. Dan decided to stay at the hotel to check us in, etc, and back to the station I went with the officers. Through all of this, the gentlemen kept reassuring me—you WILLget your passport back, please don’t worry, this happens ALL THE TIME. They even offered me a couple of unclaimed passports in jest—I said I’d consider one of them if they were for a young, thin woman. #laughingthroughmytears.
A female officer started all the paperwork for me to take to Madrid to the embassy to get papers to be able to leave the country. Loyal Charo was busy planning for every possible outcome—if the passport gets turned in here in Sarria, could the police send it to her at Correos in Santiago? Then when I got there I could pick it up? etc, etc. About this time, the phone rang. As the officer listened into the receiver she locked eyes with me and said, “¡Tu esposo tiene tu pasaporte!” Charo, the officer and I all let out a shout of happiness and there were hugs all around!
Meanwhile…back at the hotel:
You will recall that Dan was sitting with the receptionist at the hotel “just in case.”
As they were sitting there mulling over where the zipper on my pack had possibly given up the ghost and all the other worrisome natter that folks go through when they are essentially helpless, one of the regular taxi drivers entered the vestibule with one of his deliveries of suitcases for the day. The receptionist said, “Hey, Francisco, have you heard any word of someone finding a lost passport?” According to our receptionist, Francisco always has his thumb on the pulse, ear to the ground, and Gladys to every Kravitz. Today was no exception.
His eyes got big—“Is it black? With a zipper? And a belt attached?”
The receptionist repeated this to Dan, who said, “Why yes! Yes it is!”
Francisco had apparently been driving into Sarria when he saw it laying on the sidewalk—not too far from where I discovered it missing! He picked it up and turned it in to a tourism office nearby. He started to explain to Dan (who has no Spanish) where it was and then said, “I take you!” So off they went.
Entering in to the tourism office, Francisco and Dan discovered the employees simultaneously scanning my passport and trying to find me on Facebook to see if they could locate my whereabouts. They happily returned the wallet to Dan, I happily returned to the hotel, and we both happily shook our heads in amazement at the inherent goodness of people. Angels among us, indeed.
Some will say, “That’s the Camino for you! People are always experiencing miracles on the Camino!” I will say, “That’s people for you—miracles are all around us if only we will look.” I truly believe in the goodness of my fellow humans and that there are angels among us every day.
Hasta la próxima (Until the next time)…
After a lovely farewell dinner with us, our dear José and Rosy headed elsewhere from Sarria to enjoy another week of vacation. We had lost track along the way of our Irish and Scottish ladies and two special groups of Aussies after they stopped earlier than Santiago. Our Camino ended in Santiago a few days later, capped by another small farewell party with Juan, Judit, some of their Camino family, and two other German ragamuffins, Rene and Mariano, with whom we had become friendly between Sarria and Santiago.
Our friendship with Rene and Mariano was solidified over several meals that contained more laughter than calories. We laughed so much my head hurt after. I’m still sure that if I ever get to Germany, that some words that Rene taught me are definitely NOT what he said they were! #ornery
The Way = Life
Sitting here at home, I reflect on the wonderful experience that was the Camino de Santiago. In life, as on The Way, there are so many lessons, opportunities for kindness, and evidence of God’s grace. I think what makes the Camino so special to people is that they walk with their eyes wide open—open to new people, open to new experiences, and open to kindnesses—both given and received. If there is any take away from our weeks spent walking, it is this: you don’t have to abandon the way you felt on the Camino; you can live The Way every day. The Camino isn’t just a geographical place, or even an experience. It is within each of us if we just dare, as José did, to keep our eyes and hearts open to its light in others.
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When you live in a part of the world that enjoys 4 distinct seasons, it is possible to enjoy the sensory feast that is each one. Too often, however, we are so accustomed to our surroundings that we fail to notice the everyday beauty that is on our doorstep. Each place on this earth has a unique, purposeful amalgamation of flora, fauna, weather, and the like that makes it HERE. Currently, in my part of the U.S., we are enjoying mid-to-late summer sights, smells, and sounds. In the Midwest, the trinity of chicory, ditch lilies, and Queen Anne’s lace is lining the roads.
The ditch lilies (what folks around here call the orange day lilies that spring up everywhere) tap out by August 1st, but the other two will keep going strong until late fall.
They are so ubiquitous as to become almost invisible, but if you actually LOOK, they are quite beautiful. As September comes, they will be joined by goldenrod, asters, Joe Pye weed and ironweed. The roadsides, however, will remain the domain of the periwinkle colored chicory and the bobbing heads of Queen Anne’s lace.
Another sight this time of year is the corn blossoming into tassel. When the dew starts to fall as the August evenings cool, driving through corn country with the windows down is a sweet treat.
It always makes me feel like a child again, tucked up against Dad’s side in the ’67 Chevy pick-up, coming home from the softball field. Dad ran the Old-Timers’ League in Carroll, Ohio, in the 70’s, where he spent MANY an evening supervising men’s softball games; sometimes we’d go along to watch him play. This was in the days when men generally still wore jeans to play recreationally—and sometimes even a collared shirt. “Activewear” wasn’t even a thought yet–but I digress.
Besides the fragrant corn, even grass takes on a different, sweeter smell this time of year. In the spring, it is so vibrant and fresh, but now, when it is cut—if it is cut at all— it has a golden, ripe aroma. Its fragrance is of the last swell of growth before going dormant in the fall.
On late summer nights/early late summer mornings, the air sometimes condenses into thick fog which isn’t nearly as common in other seasons.
The fog’s cool fingers let you know that winter is somewhere out there in the white swirling around you, but it won’t find you yet.
They say that the first frost comes 90 days after you hear the first cicada each summer. As a teacher, I always dreaded hearing that first trill since it meant that fall, indeed, was coming. The year we were painting Abby’s room, we had the windows open on a beautiful July 2, when she and I first heard the clarion call. Now that I’m retired, I enjoy much more the raucous cacophony that makes up an Ohio August. Just as spring peepers tell your ears that it is late March, the cicada lets you know that summer has reached its zenith in the Midwest. The crickets and other insects can keep up quite a symphony on a Midwest night, only abating as the birds sing the sun up.
After so many years—55 really—of living according to the rhythm of the school calendar, it still feels as if I’m playing hooky in August now that I don’t have to be preparing for a fresh year. So far this August, I haven’t had one of my anxiety dreams about the classroom (it’s still early yet, though!). It is a luxury to be able to enjoy the winding down of summer: days that are still long, but aren’t as scorching, the bounty of the garden, and the natural chronicle that lets us know instinctively where we are in Mother Nature’s world. Breathe deeply. Look. Listen. Repeat.
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Recently, the scandal about celebrities and other Richie Riches buying their kids’ way into prestigious colleges broke in the news.While this comes as no surprise to the other 99%, it rather brought a few things into focus for me that have knocked around in my head for years.
While there are certainly still good parents around, it seems that there is a large population of parents who have lost their way. Toxic parents aren’t only the rich and famous, they come from every single socio-economic group; in my experience, however, it seems that the privileged have a corner on this market. Ask any school administrators in a privileged area, and they will regale you for hours about parenting horror stories. I’m even afraid to share the most egregious one I know for fear that the parents involved will sue me (I am in utter sincerity, here—these people are a shining example of awful). Further, the audience for this piece would be the parent (or future parent) who is able to see to their child’s basic needs. If one is concentrating on putting food on the table and finding clothing for one’s family–this piece might seem frivolous.
So much has been written about parenting that I hesitate to add my voice to the throng, but if this resonates with even one person, then maybe it was worth it.
There are multiple facets to being a good parent. In my opinion, the four skills that must be taught in order to raise functioning adults are:
In their efforts to make sure that their kids have a great life, parents sometimes go overboard in what they perceive as protecting them rather than inculcating these skills.
A great upbringing MUST include learning how to respect oneself and others, learning to be responsible to oneself, family, and community, learning how to be resilient by bouncing back from and overcoming setbacks and disappointments, and learning how to be reliant on one’s own skills and ability to make decisions.
Even the youngest child can be taught basic respect. I’ll never forget what my mom said to me when my firstborn child was learning to talk and “needed” something. She said, “He is old enough to say please and thank you.” And she was right. Maybe some new parents don’t have anyone giving them an example to follow or advice when it can do some good. Here’s a pic of Child #1 and me around the time he started learning some manners. Please enjoy my mushroom-style hair-do:
Parenting gets a little trickier as the child enters school. There is a frequent game plan for the parent who does not teach his/her child respect.Perhaps the child has just engaged in some shenanigans at school (it doesn’t matter the severity of the infraction—the game plan is always the same).
Toxic Parenting Game Plan:
Insist that the child didn’t do anything wrong.
Threaten to sue the teacher, the school, the principal, the other kids, the neighbor, whomever.
Maybe tell a few lies or repeat the one-sided version of the story that the parent has accepted from the child without question.
Think of a convoluted excuse to get out of any punishment. Insist that your child made a poor decision because of any of the following: a disability, the influence of the “real” bad guys, his/her friends, any temporary condition like a headache, or ignorance.
Just so you know that we always tried to put our money where our mouths are…when Child #1 was a fairly new driver he had a truck that he drove to school. One day I got a call from the SRO (School Resource Officer) telling me that a woman had witnessed our son (she gave his license plate # and described the truck) driving poorly (too fast and apparently he went around someone) in the school zone. I thanked the officer and told him we would deal with it at home.
When I asked Child #1 about it, he denied any wrong-doing. He also said that anything he possibly did wrong MUST be exaggerated. If his father and I followed the toxic parenting playbook, we would have insisted on his innocence, took his word over that of an adult in the community, maybe insisted on meeting with the SRO to clear his name, found out who the woman was, given her a piece of our minds, posted about it on social media, and started a troll war.
What we did was this: He wasn’t allowed to drive for a few days. We also took the part of the “witness”. My reasoning was that for a person to go to all the trouble of getting our son’s license #, go into the school, and talk to the SRO–there had to have been some sort of issue. In other words, we didn’t take our child’s word for it. He was a good kid and he’s a great adult now. At that point he needed to understand that he needed to respect laws and the safety of others. Full disclosure: he still maintains innocence. Whatever.
When the parent models toxicity for the child, the child learns not to respect authority, develops feelings of entitlement, and eventually becomes a stunted adult.This child will in turn become a poor parent (and neighbor, community member, employee, etc).
Respect Part II: Respecting the “NO”
When my kids were about 13 and 10 or so, we were in Blockbuster on a Friday evening (circa 2001). A woman and her kids were in front of us in the checkout line and the kids were being obnoxious. They were begging for candy and anything else that Blockbuster had so conveniently and thoughtfully placed right there just as you were about to escape.
The mom kept saying, “No, we’re not getting any candy. No, we’re not getting any popcorn. No, you can’t have that giant Pixie Stix. No, no, no…”
This, of course, seemed perfectly normal to my two who were just wishing that the kids would shut up. Then, at the last moment before going to the cashier, the mom suddenly said, “Okay, pick out something you want.”
If heads could snap off necks, my children would certainly be haunting Ichabod Crane now. Their eyes wide, they looked up at me incredulously. My oldest whispered, “She should not have given in. Why would she do that?”
How sad is it that a thirteen-year-old saw the truth of the situation more than the adult involved. Unfortunately, what we witnessed was probably a regular pattern for her and her kids; those children knew exactly how much her word was worth. They did not respect her word or her “no”.
If you can’t be strong in the small battles, you’ll never win the ones with bigger stakes when the child is older. If your child doesn’t respect your “no”, your child won’t respect anyone else’s “no” either. If you break your word consistently, your word has no value.
Respect Part III: The importance of your word
Struggling parents might not know my dad’s axiom for parents and teachers:
Don’t make threats you can’t follow through with; follow through with all your threats.
Now, my dad never said this in so many words to me, but it is a lesson that has helped me handle many a situation.
Here’s how he taught me this:
When I was about 6 or 7, my mother served chipped beef on toast for lunch one Saturday. For those of you uninitiated into the tasty charm of chipped beef on toast, it is also referred to as “sh** on a shingle”. As a child, I did not care for it, to put it mildly.
As we sat down to lunch, looking at my plate in dismay, I said, “I’m not eating this.” My dad said, “You’ll either eat it or wear it.” (Now, Dad probably didn’t really think this threat through or he might have chosen a different one—perhaps not getting anything to eat at all?, but with his usual panache, he threatened me with wearing my food). So, as many a child before or after me would naturally do, I called his bluff. Down my face went into the gravy, only to be raised from my plate with bits of chipped beef jauntily hanging from my eyebrows. Here is a photo to help you with just how appealing chipped beef on toast looks:
To our credit, both dad and I burst out laughing. In case you think my mother cheerfully prepared me an alternate entree, think again. Dad told me to go get my face cleaned off. When I plopped back down in my seat, he said, “Eat up.” And. I. Did.
If your kids know that you mean what you say and that you’ll stick to it, they are much more likely to follow your instructions. Without whining and begging. The caution in this axiom is, of course, to not make a foolish threat. Threats should be fair and the punishment should fit the crime. Threats should also not be thrown around like confetti; they should be used judiciously.
A parent has a responsibility to a child to help them be the best person they can be. Keeping one’s word is a powerful lesson. If you don’t keep your word consistently, your word has zero value. Others will learn that you can’t be counted upon or trusted.
Responsibility has so many different facets in the family dynamic. Parents have a responsibility to meet a child’s basic needs so that the child is nurtured and safe. Parents also have a responsibility to teach the child responsibility so that child can grow into a contributing adult.
How do you teach a youngster to be responsible for their own behavior? To do their part in any sort of group situation (anything from chores at home to group projects at school to cleaning up after an event in which they took part, etc)?
I have one word for you: modeling. Be the person that society NEEDS your child to grow up to be. Volunteer to help where it’s needed. Do more than is asked. Look for ways to help that might not be visible to everyone. Be gracious. Have good manners. Do the right thing.
Involve your child in any and all of these activities. Give them responsibilities to take care of at home or for their team or their club(s). Ask them what they are doing to contribute to any group they are involved in. Actively discourage free-loading.
To illustrate this point, here is a pic of our kids and their cousin fixing dinner for extended family on vacation. This is a light-hearted example, but it shows how easy it is to teach involvement and ownership. Certainly, we were right there in case they needed us, but THEY did the work. And it was delicious.
When our children have a responsibility to a given outcome, they take ownership of it. Being a contributing member of society means being responsible for more than just yourself.
Another one of my dad’s axioms is, “Kids will be kids, no matter whose kids they are.” In my experience as a public school teacher and the wife of a public high school assistant principal, I’ve seen that parents unfortunately think that every stupid thing their kids do is a reflection upon them. It is very hard to swallow that kids do stupid things because they’re kids. Their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed; they are simply incapable of making good decisions all the time—no matter how terrific their parents might be.
Resiliency goes hand in hand with responsibility; the examples I’ve used in part are interchangeable. Parents would be much better served to let their kids take their just desserts rather than displacing their anger at whatever unlucky school administrator/teacher/coach is in their line of fire. If your kid does something wrong, the lesson you teach him/her should be the following:
1. Own up to whatever you did.
2. Apologize when necessary.
3. Take your punishment and move on.
This lesson leads to responsible ADULTING.
There are times, of course, when the child does nothing wrong and yet still might be disappointed in an outcome. It is OKAY for your child to have disappointments. Your job as a parent is to help them to navigate those disappointments and the feelings that come with them.
When our youngest child was auditioning for a part in the high school musical, she came home afterward and immediately burst into tears. She explained that she had helped others read for parts they wanted but that they had left before she had a chance to read for a part that SHE wanted (there was a lesson in self-advocacy right there). I encouraged her to go back to the audition since it was still going on and talk to the director to see if she could still read for a part. We talked about respectful language and discussed what she might say. Off to the school we went, parked the car, and I moved to get out. She said, “What are you doing?” I replied that I thought I’d accompany her to talk to the teacher (which I should not have done, by the way). She said, “If I can’t go back in there and talk to him then I don’t deserve to read for a part anyway,” and off she went. #proudmamamoment
The final piece of helping kids reach a successful adulthood is to give them opportunities to be self-reliant. Many parents do this by giving their children chores to do each week. Other parents ask their children to do their own laundry once they’re capable. Kids are capable of so much more than we give them credit for—often at a younger age than we expect.
The way it looked in our house was that we tried to stress that we were a team that worked together.
The kids were called upon to help with whatever needed done at the moment. If there was an evening when our schedules just wouldn’t allow us to eat together, our kids knew their way around a kitchen enough to fix themselves a simple supper.
Or, if there was a problem at school and they needed to talk to a teacher or classmate, we brainstormed possible language and communication strategies to use—without my husband or me intervening. The same went for any difficult decision that needed making—lay out the possible outcomes/pros/cons and then allow the child to make the decision. (*There might be some super important decision that the parent needs to make–and the parent should do just that. There are many more mundane decisions that happen day to day that the child should learn to make for him or herself, however).
Ownership of a decision is an important piece of self-reliance. The child learns to consider consequences and to live with them.
There is so much “out there” about parenting, raising children the “right” way, etc. Other writers have used some of the same verbiage that I have used here, but the lessons, illustrations, and experiences are wholly mine. I hope they speak to you. We MUST do what we can to train up better adults; it DOES take a village.
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One of my favorite quotes from “It’s a Wonderful Life” is when Clarence the Angel says, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The hole left by the passing of my maternal grandmother is likely felt even today in the effect it had on the culture of my mom’s family even though she surely would’ve passed long ago.
How It Used to Be
When I was a little girl, I was lucky enough to have not just one, but both grandmothers nearby who were able to watch me during the day as my mother taught elementary school in a neighboring town.
Back in the mid to late 60’s was when I was with her. Since my mom was the middle child of five, there were still two of her siblings more or less at home when I was with my grandma. My Aunt Sandy graduated from high school just before I was born in 1964, and my Uncle Bill graduated in 1968.
I have some memories of him eating breakfast before rushing off to school. He’s the one who showed me the deliciousness of catsup on scrambled eggs, after all. Other random memories that I have from then are cherry pie, red velvet cake, and stealing a box of Nilla Wafers and hiding under the counter to feast. Grandma’s recipe for red velvet cake and bread pudding are still two family favorites.
Whereas my other grandma had no one at home to care for anymore and could lavish all her attention on me, my maternal grandma still had a home humming with young people. Aunt Sandy lived at home and had a job at Zaner-Bloser (the penmanship college and printing company in Columbus where my Great-Grandpa Lupfer had been the principal). Uncle Bill was still in high school; my parents and I lived around the corner. We didn’t have a washer and dryer so that was another reason to be at Grandma and Grandpa Lupfer’s quite often. When Aunt Sandy married an Army man, Uncle Wayne, they sometimes stayed with my grandparents depending on his assignments–eventually having my cousin Sherry who lived there as a baby too.
Aunt Sandy and Uncle Wayne’s wedding reception. Grandpa and Grandma Lupfer are at the right. I am in front of the table, two years old and probably sporting a dirty diaper, despite my angelic appearance.
It wasn’t unusual for the two older siblings, Uncle Larry and Aunt Pattie to visit with their families. The house on Cedar Hill Road was the hub of family life—everyone came home for holidays. It was a close-knit family and arguments were few or nonexistent.
Grandma was a great cook and Grandpa was the BEST gardener I’ve ever seen. His green thumb was legendary. On their small property on Cedar Hill he had vegetable and flower gardens, a pond with fish to catch, and a small orchard.
Me fishing in the pond at Cedar Hill. Yes, my mother made a two year old child wear curlers–apparently everywhere.
There was a woods behind their house from which we sometimes cut down our Christmas tree. There were summer days spent in a kiddie pool with my cousin, Sherry, and fishing in the pond. It was pastoral and family was everything.
The Day It All Changed
The hive of activity that was life in the house on Cedar Hill came to a crashing halt in May of 1969. That cool, rainy morning in May, Grandma and I had some errands to run, and then she had a doctor’s appointment. We had picked up a giant bag of asparagus from some market and she had treated me to McDonald’s. After the doctor, we headed home. On the way there, Grandma pulled the car to the side of the road unexpectedly, and said, “Let’s see if these pills the doctor gave me work.”
They were the last words she ever spoke.
To my four-year-old eyes, it looked like Grandma had fallen asleep. She kept raising her right hand toward her mouth? her chest? And I think I remember her moaning softly.
I stayed in the car and tried to wake her up by pulling gently on her hair. I guess I thought—“That should do it!” I also hoped for someone to stop and would try to signal through the steamed-up windows for each passing car to pull over. A pick-up truck finally did.
A kind man wearing a fishing cap opened the passenger door of the car and reached for me. It was only then that I started to cry as I said, “There’s something wrong with my grandma.”
This was the first time I remember that feeling of being able to hold myself together about something awful until I gave voice to it. Now, I’m a firm believer in not holding things in and talking through things to heal them. But, sometimes, it is too hard to name a problem or say it out loud. Sometimes, you have to wait until you get home before losing your $h*t. Telling the nice man in the fishing cap that something really, really bad had happened was my first experience with this phenomenon.
Mr. Fishing-Cap took me to a nearby gas station/convenience store while the squad was called. The kind folks there offered me anything I wanted, but I wouldn’t take anything. I remember sitting in the passenger seat of the policeman’s car who was attending and I dutifully told him my name and address, my parent’s names, and where they worked. Kudos to my mom and dad who had taught me those important bits of information at such a young age.
While he contacted them, he dropped me off at his own home,
and his wife and young son watched me until my folks could come get me.
I remember Mom crying and washing the tears from her face in the small bathroom off the kitchen in Grandma’s house; I had no understanding. It was my first real experience with death in a very immediate way.
Through Adult Eyes
That year was a tough one for my family; five of its older members passed away within a month or so of each other. I lost a great-great-grandmother, two great-grandfathers, a great uncle, and my grandma.
There is no way to minimize death, but of the five, Grandma was the most vitally important to my part of the family.
When I reflect on this as an adult and as a daughter, mother, and spouse, I am saddened anew for those she left behind. They say that you are never ready to lose a mother—but how much harder it must be when you are young. The effect her death had on the life of the family cannot be understated; those effects were far-reaching and sometimes unexpected. Don’t misunderstand–our family continued to be a wonderful one–but what might our family life have been like had she NOT passed away in 1969? The other 7 grandkids that came along would have known her. The siblings that moved from Ohio (of the five, my mom was the only one to stay here) might have come home more often, and we certainly would have had bigger family holidays with more of the aunts, uncles, and cousins together.
The axis of the family was gone. Coming home wasn’t the same because home wasn’t there. Home as we knew it was gone forever when her heart stopped beating.
Family Was Still Important
The five siblings still made it a priority to get together for Thanksgivings every other year until 1982, and there were many, many visits across the Appalachians to visit during the summer, but Christmases were no longer spent at the house on Cedar Hill. Gone were the loving Christmas gifts for the grandchildren and the times spent together for both holidays and every days.
Here are a few pics of holidays as they were–everyone home, time with cousins, presents lovingly selected for the grandchildren (just Steve and me, then), visits from extended family. It was comfortable. It was home.
Grandma looking on as cousin Steve and I try out our new tricylces–1966
Cousin Steve on his new tractor, 1967
Me arranging my new kitchen set, Christmas 1967
Turkish robes from Uncle Larry who served in Vietnam, 1968?
Aunt Sandy’s red lipstick looked great!
Steve and me impersonating teenagers
They did manage to get together, however, for one Christmas in 1973. That was the year that my mom must have had Uncle Lornie’s name in the gift exchange. Now, Uncle Lornie was known to have a slightly larger than normal proboscis.
Uncle Lornie with crocheted nose-warmer. Who “nose” why this didn’t become a thing?
See the pic for him modeling the lovely nose-warmer she crocheted him. That gift, and the fact that my parents allowed my three-year-old brother, Mike, to drink Pepsi all evening are about the only things I remember from that Christmas.
Grief Is a Powerful Force
Grandpa, in his grief, remarried fairly quickly. Unfortunately, his choice had a devastating effect on the family. Not only were all the “kids” reeling from the loss of their mom, but insult was added to injury by the actions of the woman who took her place. Many of Grandma’s belongings—favorite dishes, prized knick-knacks, were given away willy-nilly to people who didn’t even know my grandma. Grandpa was either unaware of the hurt this caused or powerless to stop it. Holidays became either torturous or non-existent. The new wife was spectacularly cruel at times; each of us had at least one interaction with her that was simply awful–even me, a child. Perhaps she was a different person with her own children and grandchildren, but our family rarely saw that side of her. Nowadays there is more information and education available about grief, blended families, and relationships. Back then, it wasn’t something that was going to be discussed or “worked” on.
I don’t know if my dear, funny grandpa ever realized the enormity of the decision he made in a haze of grief. I’m sure he must have been lonely. The beautiful place on Cedar Hill was sold. Its new owners let it go to ruin, and it became a living metaphor for his relationship with the family.
When Grandpa’s second wife died in 1986, he came back to us. Once again, he was accessible, present, and loving. Her toxicity was gone from his life, and by extension, ours. Even though my grandma’s presence was still missed, we were consoled by the ensuing years we had with him until his death in 1992. It was as if the 16 years in between were a bad dream that he woke up from. There were visits and laughter and he was easy with all of us once again. His innate generosity was again everywhere. For my wedding present, he drove a trailer from Florida with large pieces of furniture in it. One piece was my great-grandpa’s writing desk (you’ll recall that he was a penman). The other piece was a beautiful antique glass-fronted hutch with extra storage beneath. Grandpa saw it out with someone’s trash (covered in green paint), picked it up, and refurbished it for me. I still treasure both pieces and they are in use every day.
Our Experiences Shape Us
Life, with its losses, its toxic people, and its traumatic experiences, is still, well, life. We learn as much or more from the bad things as we do the good. There is perhaps a heightened appreciation for those with whom we share the journey , an awareness of how NOT to treat others, and an acquisition of strength to face challenges. I have sometimes felt guilty that I stayed in the car instead of trying to go to a nearby house for help. Would it have changed anything? We’ll never know. What I do know is that our relationships are of utmost importance, life isn’t always easy, and sometimes it takes a little bit of bad to appreciate the good.
Maya Angelou said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” I don’t know that this story was causing me agony, but I DO feel better for telling it.
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