The Worst Emotion

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Our human natures are so complex. An infant is pure innocence but over time environment and  emotional responses to the world can turn that baby into a dark and frightening adult. The green eyed monster of envy colors the way we view the world. Our competitive natures can turn to greed. Our frustrations might burst forth in anger. Sometimes our thinking calcifies into hate and therein lies the greatest danger we might impose on the people around us. 

I grew up in a bubble of sweetness and kindness. We had everything we needed inside the compact area of my neighborhood. We went to school there, attended church there, purchased our groceries there. The people who lived near us were much like us. We saw very little diversity or variety in our world. It felt safe and happy and wonderful but it was not all that we needed to become thinking adults capable of making wise decisions. Our teachers stepped in to help us see that there was much more to the world at large than what we were experiencing in our little corner. 

In the seventh grade my teacher taught us about rhetorical devices and propaganda. She blew my mind away when she noted that even politicians in the United States of America used misleading information to influence us. It was mind altering to hear such things. My high school English teacher often spoke of our need to become citizens of the world. He exposed us to books, periodicals, plays, ideas that were foreign to us. He widened our horizons all the while expanding our minds. My college professors continued to take me on a journey of enlightenment that forced me to take a hard look at my own viewpoints. I learned how to question everything before succumbing to belief. It was both exhilarating and frightening. 

Then there was my grandfather who taught me about his own folksy history and his journey toward illumination. He introduced me to truths that I had never before been taught. He gave me books to read and spoke of the flaws of his heroes as though it was important that I understand that imperfections are part of who we are as humans. On one occasion he gave me a book about Abraham Lincoln, one of his most admired historical figures. 

I devoured the story of this man who suffered from bouts of severe depression and fought demons of his own while tenaciously holding our nation together. I neglected the assignments from my college courses to read the biography all the way to the end. I was curled up on a couch in our living room one evening when my mother’s boyfriend came to take her out to dinner. While she was readying herself I sat nervously doing my best to be polite to him. There were things about him that I did not like and it was uncomfortable just being in the same room with him.

He had known my mother when they were young teens. Mama had actually had a crush on his brother who would later become a respected professor at a university. This man on the other hand had accomplished little in his life. He was a sad character who had gone from one job to another and then lost his wife to cancer. He was raising two children on his own and he met my mother at a gathering of Parents Without Partners where they recognized each other immediately. The common thread of their youth had brought them together but beyond that they were so unlike each other. 

He was a member of the John Birch Society, a far right organization known for its racism and conspiracy theories. He had made my mother feel uncomfortable with his tales of intrigue and had even boasted to her that he knew people who would eliminate someone with the blink of an eye. She had wanted to end their relationship but he had spun a web of guilt and fear around her that became more and more abusive and frightening over time. I had grown to be wary of him and I continually hoped that my mother would find a way to break off her relationship with him. 

On the day that I was reading the book about Lincoln that my grandfather had given me this man began to spew a kind of political phenom unlike anything I had ever before heard. He insisted that Lincoln’s assassination was a godsend for the country. He spoke of the freeing of the slaves with a level of racism that I had never before heard. As he continued his tirade I found myself experiencing emotions unlike any I had ever before endured. I literally felt the sting of hate growing in my heart. I wanted to tear out his eyes and push him out the front door threatening him with the same kind of violence that he described to my mother to keep her in line. Instead I sat silently seething and feeling ashamed for lowering myself to his level.

Eventually his constant barrage of verbal abuse broke my mother. She experienced a total mental breakdown that required hospitalization and lead to a lifetime of therapy. My uncles had to visit this man with threats of their own to keep him away from her. She was free of him but not of the paranoia that he had spewed while they were together. From that day forward she had fears that I am sure came directly from his hateful points of view because they had never been there before.

It took a long time for me to eliminate the hate that I bore toward him. I did not like how it made me feel but just the mention of his name stirred emotions that I knew were wrong. Time passed but those memories never faded. Eventually when I felt safe from him I no longer worried that he would show up to once again disrupt my mother’s life. When I believed that he would not harm us anymore I was able to replace my loathing of him with pity for his ignorance. Still I wondered if some other poor soul had become the victim of his animus. 

I have no idea what became of him but I know that he changed me and my mother forever. My own level of trust lost its innocence. I also understood that I too was capable of the most despicable of all human emotions, hate. I had to forgive him and then myself before I was able to move forward. I did that mostly because I was no longer afraid of him. I was able to reject the poison that he had injected into my family and realize that he was a sorrowful person who had somehow been damaged long before he came into our lives. 

My mother never again spoke of him. I think her relationship with him had started from her unlimited compassion. She wanted to help him and his children. Once he had dominated her fragile mind her only goal was to humor him lest he do her or her family harm. The price she had to pay for her goodness was a lifetime of fear brought on by episode after episode of mental illness. Mine was the cost of losing my innocence and understanding than hate can fester in any heart unless we actively work to keep it at bay. Luckily my teachers and my grandfather had given me the tools I needed to overcome the destructiveness of hate.


Just In Time

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When my mother died I was filled with an unbelievable variety of emotions. Of course there was sorrow that she was gone, but I also found myself beset with guilt that I was not able to eliminate from my mind. Mama had endured recurrent bouts with bipolar disorder that often strained our otherwise remarkable relationship. When she was in the midst of a psychotic episode of mania she became suspicious of everyone, including me. To protect herself she was aggressive, hurling almost unmentionable insults that I know were part of the her illness but hurt nonetheless. Sometimes she wore me down to the point that I found myself wondering if there was some truth to the things she said. Did I really want to totally control her life? I am after all an admitted control freak. Had I somehow betrayed her in forcing her to submit to treatments for her disorder? Were there times when I over reacted to her noncompliance with harsh words of my own and even that time when I grew so agitated that I slapped her and told her that she was going to her doctor and better just accept that reality? All of those moments came flooding into my thoughts mixing with my grief and confusing my mind.

I said nothing to anyone about the turmoil I was feeling, not even my husband or my daughters. It was something I had to sort out on my own but I was not doing a particularly good job of self therapy. I prayed to God for answers and while that gave me some comfort I was still so very confused. Dealing with a mentally ill loved one for most of my adult life had taken a toll on me that was deeper than I had imagined. I did not want to feel sorrow for myself. I simply wanted to remember my mother as she was when she was well because I knew that was who she really was. I was angry that I was still having flashbacks of our most horrific times and focusing on the moments when I might have handled things better. 

Then came a lovely plant from my dear friend, Adriana Stovall, along with a beautiful sympathy card in which she had written a heartfelt note. I don’t suppose that she will ever realize how much her gesture eased my pain but it was exactly what I needed in that moment. The lines that struck me the most in her message helped me to realize that while my support of my mother through her ordeal had sometimes been imperfect I had indeed done my best. Quite simply Adriana told me that everyone had seen through my daily actions how much I had loved my mother. I sobbed tears of relief as I read that thought over and over again. Somehow it was the support and absolution that I most needed in that moment. Adriana had freed me from the burden of guilt and I was able to move forward knowing that all that I had done for Mama had been motivated by love. 

Friends are remarkable. They do quiet things, simple things that prove to have so much meaning for us. All too often the impact of their actions are so personal and moving that we are not sufficiently able to let them know how dearly we needed and appreciated them in that moment. I once said something to Adriana about how much her words had meant to me but I don’t think that I sufficiently explained why. I was embarrassed to admit to my personal demons and how much they had pulled me down. I was drowning in a kind of self punishment when she reached out a hand and rescued me. I will always remember her for that. 

As we go through life the little things are the ones that become big things. The soup that Linda Scheffler brings me after surgery is more healing than my prescriptions. The sweet note and gift that Bren Ortega Murphy sends lauding me for my service to education and my integrity reassures me that I am indeed following a worthy pathway in life. The annual Christmas visit and gift from former student Lizette Coronado brightens my world, especially when it comes even in the midst of a pandemic. The care package and understanding note that my departed friend Pat Weimer gives my daughter Catherine after her miscarriage reminds me of the true riches of friendship. The lovely card from Jenny Brunsell in the long and sometimes lonely days of the pandemic brightens my spirit just when it is about to fade. The phone calls from Zerin Sahai, Nancy Gracey, Carol Klodginski, and Cappy Szabo when they sense that I need to hear a friendly voice tell me that I am never alone. The sweet texts from Lisa Weimer Anderson, Tricia Miller, Chrystal Smith Hebert, and Aimee Harriramani always bring a smile to my face. The sharing of good news from Keiry Hernandez reassures me that my purpose in life is a worthy one. These simple acts of kindness always seem to arrive at exactly the moment when I need them. They are the measures of what friendship is all about.

I’d like to believe that somewhere along the way I too have made a difference in the life of one of my friends. I have come to appreciate these relationships more than ever in my time of isolation. Somehow they have brought me joy and support just in time. 

What A Piece Of Work Is Man (Or Humans If You Wish)

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Imagine a movie without music. Think of a church service without musicians and choirs. Think of a bride walking down the aisle in total silence. There is something in our natures that is drawn to harmonious sounds. We have created instruments and songs from the beginnings of human history. Music is the sound of angels soothing our hearts. 

My father used to take me with him on Saturdays to one of the local record stores. Back then vinyl renderings of music were on small discs that ran at 45 revolutions per minute. The shops that sold them often allowed customers to preview them before purchase and so I would sit next to my dad wearing headphones and listening along with him to the classical music that he so loved. Daddy filled the house with the sounds of Beethoven and Grieg, Au Clair de la Lune and the 1812 Overture. Each evening when he came home from work he would place a disc on the turntable of the Victrola and listen while reading the newspaper or his latest book. It is how I remember him. It was a major part of who he was.

I suppose that my own love of music began way back then but I eventually developed a far more eclectic taste than my father ever did. It would be difficult for me to name the type of music that I most love. I enjoy jazz and big bands like my Uncle Paul did. He was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. and so am I. I sometimes imagine myself listening to the radio back in the days before I was even born. I enjoy the pure sounds of recordings before synthesizers and computers began to enhance human sounds. 

As a teenager in the sixties I went crazy over the music of that era. I listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys for hours on end, sometimes playing a particular song over and over again. Rock music was in its heyday and I devoured the many choices with delight. This was a time when rock and roll matured into an art form and the genius of some groups was equal to that of the old masters whom my father so enjoyed. 

I have a thing for soundtracks and most of the music from the eighties as well. When the two were combined as with Saturday Night Fever they became iconic. Music somehow demonstrates the ultimate in human creativity and at the same time it provides a kind of escape from the trials of everyday living. Music soothes the soul.

If I had to choose the one album that is my favorite I suppose it would be Abbey Road by the Beatles. It was one of the first times that each of the songs on the LP blended so seamlessly into one another. It is a modern day symphony. Every note comes together in a way that sets it above all of its competitors. With the union of exceptional lyrics, wonderful melodies and fabulous instrumentation it is one of the greatest works of all time. It also serves as a kind of review of musical history playing homage to raw jazz, vaudevillian ditties, soothing melodies and brand new techniques. The work as a whole piece builds to an emotional crescendo that ends with one of my favorite lines of all time, “and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Abbey Road is a kind of sociological/philosophical commentary on the world.

During the pandemic I’ve been tied to home more than ever in my life. I make the best of the situation and keep myself busy but sometimes it begins to get old. Music becomes my saving grace. I listen to one of the many albums or composers that I most enjoy and I am transported to a different plane. My mind is no longer locked inside the confines of my home. My imagination soars and I am free. Sometimes I dance to the sounds; other times I am compelled to write. I might even undertake chores with music, making my tasks appear to be more fun than they really are. No pill would have the power to make me feel better than listening to my music. 

After my father died my mother often used his records to entertain us. We acted out silent plays along with the music or engaged in creative movements while we dusted furniture and picked up the clothes and toys we had left on the floor. I can still see us riding horses to the William Tell Overture or moving our fingers in a pretense of playing a piano concerto. Mundane tasks became grand adventures with that music playing in the background. Eventually as our own tastes expanded Mama would play Donna Summer while we all danced with her grandchildren. I never ceased to be amazed at what an incredible dancer my mother was. She floated across the living room like a delicate feather. I still smile at the memory of those times.

I hear people saying that musicians are not essential workers and I have to disagree. Frankly without music our world would be such a dreary place and I’m not sure that I would have kept my sanity during the pandemic. As always I remain in awe of the creative genius of those who make the music that so enhances each day of our lives and brings out the sun even when times are gray. “What a piece of work is man!”  

The Sandwich

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It is often said that John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, invented the sandwich when he ordered his staff to bring him some roast placed between two pieces of bread so that he might continue playing at his gaming table while eating his meal. Since Earl Montagu was a world traveler it is likely that he picked up the idea from cultures that regularly wrap meat and vegetables in various forms of bread and then convey them to the mouth with the hands. In other words the general idea of a sandwich has been around for a very long time but John Montagu gets the credit for its discovery. 

I have to admit that while I like the concept of eating on the run that sandwiches provide I have never in my life been a fan of them. I’ve never understood the proliferation of sandwich shops and the enjoyment that people seem to find in them. Perhaps my dislike of sandwiches goes back to my school girl days when I carried lunches from home in a tin box that insufficiently kept the contents fresh. The sandwiches on white bread filled the hunger in my belly but nothing about them was particularly appealing. Nonetheless, day after day for twelve years I was grateful for the bounty inside that box or a brown paper bag even as grew weary of the dull sameness of those slabs of white bread with some form of protein smashed between them. To this very day I would rather eat anything thing else than a sandwich. 

I want my chicken in recognizable pieces of legs and wings and thighs, not pressed together under a bun with a pickle on top. I’d rather enjoy tuna in a bowl or on a leaf of lettuce than between two slabs of bread. Even when sandwiches are fresh and the ingredients have not yet warmed to room temperature I dislike the way things fall out of the sides and get all over my fingers. I suppose it is finicky of me but the whole concept just does not work with only a few exceptions. 

I enjoy a really good hamburger, but not one loaded with sauces and ketchup and I especially abhor the idea of mayonnaise on my bun. Give me a good old number one mustard burger at Whataburger and I am in heaven. Leave the square patties for someone else and please do not even get me started on a certain brand from California that is so inferior to the ones I find in Texas. 

I can also handle a nice freshly made sandwich from a really good delicatessen but I tend to prefer mostly corned beef on dark rye with nothing more than spicy mustard. I’ll eat tomatoes and lettuce on the side like a salad but I don’t want those things moistening the bread and making it doughy. Damp bread falling apart while I attempt to contain the contents in between gives me flashbacks to those school day sandwiches that became warm clumps of damp bread clinging to oily sandwich meat and limp tomatoes. 

I suppose that I sound like a petulant child when I complain about sandwiches instead of appreciating that I have food of any sort to stave off hunger. Don’t get me wrong I will quietly make do with a sandwich when I am with other people. My mother taught me to have good manners so I never make ugly comments about any kind offerings. It’s just that if I have my druthers, sandwiches would be very low on my listing of things that I like to eat. 

There is one distinct exception to my general dislike of sandwiches that drives my husband insane. I absolutely adore grilled cheese sandwiches. I would be willing to live off of them on a daily basis. They are my go to comfort food but of course they have to be hot with the cheese all soft and melted. I’d rather order a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch or dinner than almost anything else. So when I go with my husband to a place that offers a vast array of possibilities and choose the homely grilled cheese sandwich it drives him insane. His thinking is that it takes no talent to make such a sandwich so I might just as well have stayed home. My idea is that I like the utter simplicity of it and I can be reasonably sure that nothing about it will be off putting. Of course it’s not the kind of thing that can be wrapped in waxed paper or placed in a baggie and transported for later consumption. Therein lies it’s only flaw as far as I am concerned.

There is one more kind of sandwich that I treasure and reserve for Christmas Eve. Years ago my brother began hosting that annual night of family revelry. He decided to serve Reuben sandwiches which combine pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and dark rye bread that is toasted much like grilled cheese. He combines the ingredients perfectly and I look forward to the special treat all the year long. Christmas of 2020 kept our family from congregating as in the past due to the pandemic so I had to learn how to make the yummy concoction myself. While I did a reasonable job it was not quite the same as when I am with all of the people I love. 

I suppose that in the end that is what food is all about. We certainly eat to stay alive but the real joy comes from sharing whatever with have with other people. Since so many that I know actually enjoy a meal comprised of two slices of bread holding all sorts of vegetables, meats and cheeses I suppose that I will continue to go along and find something on the menu when I get those invitations to go grab a sandwich. I’m willing to fake it for the joy of being in the company of friends and family. Maybe that was the idea the the fourth Earl of Sandwich had. He found a way to satisfy his hunger without having to leave his friends. I suppose it was indeed a great idea. 

Whose Child Am I?

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I was about six years old when I traveled to Arkansas with my family to see my father’s parents. During that visit my grandmother took us on daily visits to meet all of her favorite neighbors and then one day announced that we were going to take a little day trip to see her sister Kate. While my mother’s family was filled with aunts and uncles and cousins I had not met many people from my father’s relations so it was exciting to learn that he had an aunt of whom he was apparently quite fond. I would eventually discover that my father’s extended family was large and complex and filled with wonderful stories and histories. On that day it was just exciting to know that there was more to his background than only his parents and two sisters. 

Aunt Katie was a beautiful lady whose hair had turned a lovely snowy white. She had a sweet and sincere smile and her hugs were warm and snuggly. She and my grandmother and mother and father talked with great joy as though they had a great deal of catching up to do. I was amazed that they all seemed to know each other so well since I had never before even heard of this sweet great aunt of mine. I sat in awe of their conversation and realized there was more to who I was than I really knew. 

As the day grew shorter my grandfather announced that we needed to end our revelry if we were to get back to his house before sundown. We hurriedly took pictures of our gathering, shared more hugs and kisses and made promises to return sooner rather than later. At that moment Aunt Katie took my face in her hands and announced with a kind of pride that I definitely looked just like my grandmother when she was just a girl. My mother bristled a bit protesting that everyone agreed that I looked most like her family. Aunt Katie and my grandmother laughed without disrespect and insisted that I was definitely my father’s child. “I’ve seen those features before,” Aunt Katie declared. 

I remember feeling confused because I was a child and in my mind I only looked like myself, not some adult, especially one who was my grandmother. She was in her late seventies and bore a face filled with wrinkles. How could I possibly look like her? My father was a man with a hairline that had already begun to recede even though he was barely in his thirties. As for my mother, she had jet black hair and was incredibly beautiful in an exotic kind of way. I was just a child who did not seem like anyone but myself. At least that is how I saw it.

The feud regarding which parent I was most like continues to this day. While I am indeed unique I see more snatches of my grandmother and my father in my countenance than my mother. One of my brothers is the very image of my dad and over the years complete strangers have noticed how much the two of us resemble one another. His son and my eldest grandson could be brothers. There is more than a passing similarity between us that we share with our father which makes me think that Aunt Katie may have seen something in me that was quite real.

As I grow older I see flashes of my grandmother when I gaze into the mirror. My eyes are like hers and so are the contours of my face. My grandfather often remarked that I reminded him of his beloved wife. I sometimes think that our similarities go even deeper than the physical. I have always felt a spiritual kinship with my grandmother. I seem to remember so many lessons that I learned from her. I feel her presence deep down in my soul. 

My mother’s family still sees much of her in me and I suppose that I picked up mannerisms and expressions from her over time but she was very different. While I am generally quiet and plain she was the kind of woman who lit up a room whenever she entered. She had a charisma that made her unforgettable. Her smile bedazzled and her eyes twinkled. She was daring where I was reticent. My brown hair was mousy next to her shiny black locks. My features were less striking. I adored her and her beauty and knew that mine was different in spite of her protests that I looked more like her family than my father’s kin. In photographs of her clan at reunions I appear out of place next to my dozens of cousins. It is as though I was the adopted child from another genetic line entirely.

I am indeed my father’s child. I sport his seriousness on my face and in my demeanor. I prefer sitting at the edges of a crowd. I enjoy just being a spectator. I like the anonymity of my features and my personality. I am pretty in an unassuming way. I’m not the woman who would be chosen out of a crowd like my mother might have been but that is actually a benefit to me. I have never liked having a spotlight shone on me. I’m most comfortable when I am able to fade into the scene. 

I suppose that if truth were to be told each of us is unique but still bearing a host of genetic factors that color our eyes and determine the nuances of our appearance and even our health. I am indeed an amalgam of both my mother and father but somehow his DNA seems to be the more dominant of the two. As for who I am as a person I give full credit to my mother who raised me after my father died so early in my life. She allowed and encouraged me to follow my own star and that is who I really am. She gave me the wonderful gift of liking myself just as I am and now again I see her in every inch of me, winking and smiling like the delightful sprite that she was.