Conversations in the Hallway

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I was recently reminded of the time when I was a teenager and every home had one phone that was usually attached to a wall in the hallway of the home. It’s central location was designed to make it accessible to everyone in the family who needed to use it. It also made every conversation a bit more public than one might desire, especially a high schooler intent on talking privately with a friend.

When I was still a small child my mom and dad purchased a bench with a couple of built in shelves that held the family phone and a couple of ginormous directories that supplied the numbers of individuals and businesses. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to make the strange piece of furniture look attractive with its mahogany finish on the wood and brocade upholstery on the seat. Our family kept it dusted and our mom swept under its legs regularly to insure that it appeared to be a purposeful and attractive addition to our home’s decorating scheme. In spite of its important function it never looked quite right.

I vividly recall a time when our phone was on a party line which other neighbors shared. It was not unusual at all to pick up the receiver only to hear the voice of the lady next door babbling away with a friend. In such cases making a call became a game of first come first serve unless there was an emergency. We had to wait patiently for the line to become free and so my mom instructed me in the etiquette of sharing phone time with others. It required a quick hang up at the first sound of other voices using the services and a pledge to never reveal what might have been heard in the brief second of listening. It was indeed a rather strange situation that only lasted during my earliest childhood years.

My family moved the telephone bench from one home to another, proudly ensconcing it midway in the hallway of each new address. I found it to be extraordinarily uncomfortable for a call that lasted more than a couple of minutes which probably played right into my mom’s parental plans. By the time I was a teen it had become intolerable to be tied to such a public place when talking seriously with my friends. I eventually convinced my mother to invest in a long cord that allowed me to stretch the phone into one of the rooms located along the hallway where I might close the door to gain a small sense of privacy. Even then my brothers mischievously found excuses to walk in and out of whatever entry way I had chosen, gleefully stepping over me and laughing at my attempts to enjoy a bit of dignity during my conversations.

I was at least happy that our family phone was not located in the kitchen as I had seen in some other homes. I tried to imagine attempting to have a serious conversation in the most central part of a house. Somehow I managed to be grateful for the long cord and that provided me with a semblance of freedom from being observed while I engaged in what I considered to be quite serious discussions with my peers. The only setback was my mother’s insistence that I make my phone calls as brief as possible to keep the one phone free for the use of other members of the family.

Over time the bench that had once been a source of pride for my parents became worn. Its legs were wobbly and the brocade fabric on the seat began to fray. Almost everyone had observed my ingenious way of using the long cord to escape the prying eyes and ears of anyone else who happened to be in the hallway, and before long everyone was escaping behind one of the doors to talk. The bench sat forlornly empty and without purpose. I’m not certain when it disappeared but one day it just wasn’t there anymore. When not it use the phone sat on one of the bookcases that lined one wall of the hall.

I eventually moved out of the house and into a place of my own. It was a small apartment with a phone located in the expanse of the combined living room and kitchen. By the time my husband and I purchased our first home the age of multiple phones had arrived, so we had one conveniently hanging on the kitchen wall and one in our bedroom. Our daughters would never experience the frustration of being on full display to the family while attempting to engage in a serious conversation with a friend. Nonetheless I found myself becoming my mother as I restricted the amount of time they were allowed to spend in the frivolous pursuit of talking with people that they had spent an entire day with at school. With the invention of the portable phone that required no cord the transition to an audience free phone call seemed complete but there was so much more to come.

My how the world has changed! We actually have landline phones all over the house that are so rarely used that I often wonder why we bother having them. For now their main purpose lies in being connected to the home alarm system and serving as a backup in case of a cell phone malfunction. Whenever anyone comes to visit they arrive with their own phones which they are able to use wherever and whenever the mood strikes them. Those phones are not only a source of communication but also entertainment. They are encyclopedic in the amount of knowledge that they are able to convey with just a few strikes of the keys. The young folks using them would be appalled at the idea of having to share one device with an entire family. They can’t even imagine being tied down by a cord  that is connected to a wall. The very idea is so foreign to them that even careful description don’t convey what it was like back in the day. They laugh at the very oddity of it.

I admittedly never leave home without my phone. It is my map on the road, my guardian angel in an emergency. With rare exceptions it has made my life easier. I can call or text and almost instantly be in contact with the people I need to reach. It has kept me linked to friends in faraway places and to the happenings of the world. I now know when a child is missing or a cataclysmic event has taken place within minutes. I sit more patiently waiting my turn in some office because I have games to amuse me. I don’t have to carry a bulky camera on my trips because my phone takes and stores images of all of the places I have been. Who knew that a tiny object that fits inside my purse would have more power than the entire room of computers at NASA that were used to safely guide a human to the moon? I never imagined such a thing back when I picked up the receiver only to learn that I would have to wait until our neighbor finished her conversation on the party line that we shared. We have come such a long long way and as long as we don’t become addicted to the power of our phones, it is good.

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They Just Set Women Back

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For many years in my adult life I was a member of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. I spent some of my happiest times there, making lifelong friends who literally changed me for the better. At one point I even became one of the Directors of Religious Education which was a groundbreaking move for the parish which had before only employed nuns in such positions. I was honored to have been chosen, but always felt humbled and a bit lacking in the ability to fill the shoes of the two inspirational religious ladies who had come before me. Not everyone in the community was happy with having lay people in charge of such an important program but the times were changing and it was incredibly difficult to find nuns willing to work at such jobs.

My co-leader and I met with a great deal of opposition and worked for an abysmally low salary. The Parish Council had yet to realize that they needed to balance out our pay with the reality that they were not furnishing us with a house, car and food as they had done for the religious women who before had literally lived at the church in a makeshift convent. Because I was able to make four times more working as a teacher I eventually left that job and upon my departure recommended my dear friend Pat as a replacement and that they actually pay her more than the four thousand dollars a year that they had given me. They understood and deferred to my wisdom in both choosing Pat and providing her with an income that was worthy of all of the hard work that the job required.

While I was St. Frances Cabrini Church I was always a bit too busy to learn much about the woman for whom the parish was named. It was not until much later that I took the time to read about her and that is when I understood that I should have made more effort to unravel her story while I was still in charge of the religious education of so many children. Indeed her life should be an inspiration to people of all faiths.

St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy the last of thirteen children near the midpoint of the nineteenth century. The times were quite difficult for her family which was hardworking but barely able to live adequately due to grinding poverty. Most of Mother Cabrini’s siblings died before reaching adulthood and she herself was always in poor health. Nonetheless she possessed a great faith in God and decided to dedicate her life to helping others by joining a religious group.

At first St. Frances was rejected by several orders because she was deemed too weak to handle the routine and rigors of religious life, but she persisted and finally found a place to begin her religious life. She proved to be incredibly dedicated to helping the poor. So much so that her work caught the eyes of the bishops in her country. They asked her to travel to the United States of America where millions of Italians were going in hopes of finding a better way of life. Unfortunately they rarely moved beyond New York City itself and the conditions in which they lived there were almost as bad as those they had left behind. Mother Cabrini agreed to lend her compassion and abilities to get things done for them.

While in New York City she worked tirelessly to help not just Italian immigrants but those of all kinds who were pouring into the country from all over the world. She founded schools, hospitals and orphanages that made a stunning difference in the lives immigrants struggling to get a foothold in the new land. She found time in the midst of her work to become an American citizen and before long she was taking to her talents to other cities and states like Chicago and places as far away as Colorado. In spite of recurring illnesses she was a tireless advocate for the downtrodden and by the time of her death at the age of sixty eight she had accomplished wondrous things for the poor. Eventually she would be named a saint by Pope Pius XII and be known as the patron of immigrants, the first ever American citizen to have such an honor.

Recently the wife of the mayor of  New York City headed an effort to honor women who had contributed to the development of the metropolis in a drive called She Built NYC. The intent of the program was to choose a group of women who would have statues erected in their names to correct the unbalance of male versus female icons. A committee was formed to determine who the outstanding women might be. In order to include the voice of the people of NYC a contest was held and not so amazingly St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was the unmatched winner. Sadly the committee chose to ignore the votes and instead choose four women who did not even appear on any of the ballots that people sent to them. This was done with no explanation and has thus infuriated many of the people who had supported St. Frances Cabrini, particularly because she was such an advocate of the immigrant. Instead of honoring the peoples’ choice the committee decided to go with an abortion activist and two drag queens whom they deemed to be more in keeping with the intent of the project. 

I am saddened that the work of a woman as dedicated and giving as St. Frances Cabrini would somehow be considered less important and perhaps less woke than those with more radical contributions to the city. If the committee had always been looking for only those women who had upended traditions then that should have been made clear from the outset. Instead the title of the the drive is She Built NYC, and it is impossible to argue that building schools and hospitals for immigrants is not as meaningful as being a rebel. Thus a furor has arisen within the city of New York and across the country.

I have no problem with honoring unconventional women but I would argue that leaving one’s native country and traveling to New York City in the early years of the twentieth century to work in the bleak conditions of Italian ghettoes was as challenging a task as one might ever accept. To deny Mother Frances’ contribution to the City of New York because she was not audacious or minority enough is certainly to miss the essence of her work. This was a woman whose character was made of steel and she should be serving as an inspiration to women all over the world. It would have been courageous and proper for the committee to choose her, especially given that so many thought of her when considering who best deserved the honor. I’m sorry to say that the committee blew it in some contrived way of appearing to be progressive. Their efforts will forever be tainted by the kind of stereotyping that has challenged women for all time. They just set women back.

You Just Came Later

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I don’t think that I have ever watched one of Bill Mahr’s shows. I know about him mostly from hearsay, and in that regard I often find my thinking at odds with his. Nonetheless he sometimes hits the mark with his commentaries, and recently I found myself mentally applauding his commentary on one of his shows. It were as follows:

 “People need to stop pretending that if they were alive back when, they wouldn’t have been the same asshole as everyone else. You would have driven without seatbelts and drank when you were pregnant… Because woke-sight is not 20/20, and you don’t have ESPCP: extrasensory politically correct perception. If you were around in the 1980s, you would have worn those horrible colors and the big shoulder pads. You just would have. You’re not Nostradamus. And if you were around in the 1780s, and you were rich and white, you likely would have had slaves. … Stop being surprised we used to be dumber than we are now. The humans of tomorrow will be horrified by us…Do you really think future generations will look at what you’re doing…and say, ‘That was the moment civilization peaked. We can add nothing more?’ You’re not morally better than your grandparents, you just came later.”

The truth is that we humans are imperfect now, always have been, and always will be. We are influenced by the time and place in which we live. We learn from the people around us and evolve over time. Over the course of my seventy decades on earth I have changed the way I think and live multiple times. My beliefs have been influenced by new information and innovations, which is the way it has always been for mankind.

I am from the generation that was the first to grow up with television. It’s reach into hearts and minds is incalculable but certain. As a teen I watched the walls of racial segregation being kicked down. As a young woman I witnessed the landing on the moon and more equal opportunities for women. It was my generation that halted the boom of babies with birth control. Life has become ever more comfortable for larger and larger numbers of people during my lifetime. I have things in my home that were the stuff of dreams when I was born. Polio and other dread diseases have been all but wiped out over my seventy decades. I’d like to think that we have rid ourselves of injustices that were once quietly tolerated. Nonetheless we have made mistakes, just as our parents and grandparents did. Ours is an imperfect rendering of the world and I’d like to think that future generations will not judge us too harshly but will instead be willing to balance our offenses with the good things that we have done.

Our children and their children are nudging progress forward much as every generation has, but they are also no doubt doing things that may one day be questioned by people of the future. Mankind’s journey is one of incremental progress which is more often than not somewhat imperfect. All we can hope for is that the miscalculations that we make will not be so disastrous that they set humanity back.

In the long history of civilization there have been moments of renaissance and those which have been a blotch on our progress as people. On the whole the arc has lifted us upward toward wiser and more thoughtful ways of meeting the challenges that we face. It does us little good to waste our efforts on indicting our ancestors when we will never truly understand what their world was actually like.

I’ve searched fruitlessly for information on my paternal grandfather. All that I know about him comes from things that he told me. He always said that he was Scots Irish, a term that I never really comprehended. Only recently have I learned about the journey of people from Scotland who were encouraged to leave their homeland to settle in northern Ireland where their culture and characteristics became a blend of English, Scottish, and Irish thinking. They tended to be independent souls who were speaking of liberty and freedom long before such ideas came to fruition in the new world known as America. They were often buffeted by circumstances of poverty and political clashes that lead them to wander from one place to another in search of a modicum of peace. My grandfather’s people found their way to Appalachia.

Grandpa often spoke of growing up in an isolated area devoid of any sort of modern conveniences. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter but he and the grandmother who raised him learned to adapt to their situation. The world of his boyhood was nothing like the luxury that he would eventually enjoy by the end of his one hundred eight year lifetime. He was a living witness to the history and evolution of mankind over the course of a hundred years. He marveled at what humanity had accomplished and focused more on success than failure, because the evidence convinced him that we the people may falter, but we eventually find a way to make things better. That slow progress made him a relentless optimist.

We all know the problems that we face. We all see things that we would like to correct. Grandpa and Bill Maher are correct in believing that we need to understand that we are but workers in the job of moving the world forward. We will have great victories and we will make great blunders. In eschewing self righteousness we are more likely to help forge a future that will move us closer to the perfection that we may never realize, but that we nonetheless dream of achieving. We are no better or worse. We just came later.

Don’t “Love” Things

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We are in one of those cycles where everything we own is breaking down. In just the last few weeks we’ve had a repairman out to replace the heating element in our oven and even as I write this we are replacing our nineteen year old air conditioning system. What’s truly funny is that most of the houses on my block were built in the same year and now I watch the various trucks bringing specialists to repair or replace items similar to those with which we have also had problems. All things wear out. It is inevitable.

I went to Catholic schools and I recall the nuns telling us that we should not love inanimate objects. It was supposedly bad grammar to imply that we felt an emotional attachment to stuff. Instead we were instructed to simply say that we liked things or enjoyed owning them. I don’t know why I’ve always remembered that admonition. It causes me to think a bit more intently about becoming attached to possessions. In the final analysis they do not define who we are and we most certainly can’t bring any of them with us when we die unless we choose to build burial chambers like the ancient Egyptians. Even then none of our belongings do anything other than just sit until some archeologist digs them up. Perhaps the nuns were right to correct our thinking by requiring us to use words indicative of giving objects less value than people.

During a recent trip to the Texas Hill Country I walked through a number of antique shops with my daughter and grandchildren. We enjoy perusing the aisles of things that once belonged to strangers. I often find myself wondering what their stories were and why they eventually ended up being sold rather than treasured. Perhaps there was just too much left behind when some soul died. Now they sit in dusty warehouses bearing price tags and waiting for someone to find enough interest in them to take them to a new home. There is something a bit dreary about that, and yet I also see folks smiling with delight if they find an item that tickles them. I suppose that recycling yesterday’s treasures can be a good thing.

My own home is filled with objects that once belonged to a departed family member. I have become a kind of curator for the history of the family. I inherited that task from my mother-in-law who was able to tell a story about most of the items that she owned. Now I am the keeper of the tales. My grandchildren have suggested that I take photos and attach comments or create a video that will alert them to the personal value of the various items that fill my rooms. I suppose that means that they too would like to keep some of the more special things, not so much for value but as reminders of the journey of our family over time. With my two daughters and seven grandchildren I would like to think that the most important of the pieces will find a new resting place once I am gone. Perhaps my nieces and nephews might enjoy a trinket or two as well.

The things are not the people, but they nonetheless tell a story of them. Through the various objects I get a glimpse of the times in which they lived and the colors and styles that they liked. I can run my fingers over a table top or hold a dish and feel a connection to the past in knowing that my ancestors once used them. I find a kind of spirituality in the scratches and wear and tear. It is as though a tiny part of the people who used them lingers.

I now have the oak table on which my mother-in-law served me tea on so many Sundays. She imparted her loving wisdom over steaming cups of Earl Grey. She taught me so many valuable life lessons as we sat together. She outlined the history of her life and that of her family, a group that was adventurous and hardy. Her aunt had owned the table before her, and prior to that it had belonged to a lady who sold her house and all of its furniture so that she might go live with her daughter. That table has had a great run and even now I use it for big family gatherings and my own little tea parties. It is so much more than just a hunk of wood.

My mother and father were married at a little church in College Station, Texas near the campus of Texas A&M University. They had no guests or receptions. It was just the two of them pledging their love to one another. They moved into an upstairs bedroom that they rented from one of the professors and began their lives together with little more than a wing and a prayer. My father began to purchase silver place settings for my mother one piece at a time according to what he was able to afford. He chose a pattern called “First Love” for her and little by little presented her with enough to use for a nice gathering. The very last thing that he bought for my mother before he died was a set of ice tea spoons that he was going to present to her on their eleventh wedding anniversary. I remember that my mom and I both cried when she opened the lovely box wrapped in silver paper. To me that silver speaks volumes of my father’s love for my mother and the thoughtfulness that was so much a part of his character. The set is one of my most precious treasures and it gives me great joy to share it at special dinners with family and friends.

I have a small collection of enamel ware that came from my Slovakian grandmother. She used the bowls each Christmas Eve to hold oranges and nuts for our annual party at her house. When she died my mother and her siblings allowed me to choose a few items from her home. I took a couple of books that had belonged to my grandfather and those enamel bowls and coffee cups that will forever remind me of her.

So while I agree that we should not love things, I also know that some of them are incredible keepsakes that have far more meaning than might be apparent. I genuinely hope that the most wonderful among them will never be relegated to a dreary antique store waiting to be enjoyed once again. I’d like to believe that their stories will live on in the homes of my children, grandchildren and maybe even my great grandchildren. They were once rather profoundly used in moments of great love by the people who came before me, and that is what makes them pricelessly meaningful. 

The Old West

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I grew up watching westerns with my Uncle Jack. I loved all of those shows about the old west but perhaps my favorite was Bonanza with its stories about the Cartwright family. Hoss and Adam and Little Joe were heroes to me and I loved the tales of their adventures. On many an episode they wandered into Virginia City to take care of business or meet up with friends. I was fascinated by the lifestyle of those long ago towns where folks endured hardship in search of gold or silver or some better way of life. Imagine my delight when our recent travels took us to the real historic Virginia City in Nevada just outside of that state’s capitol, Carson City.

This was once the site of a booming gold rush town. The decaying remnants of the old mines still litter the hillsides in a haunting way. They serve as a reminder of the ebb and flow of booms and busts in the story of mankind. Once they were alive with frantic activity designed to pull riches out of the earth. Now there is little more left than worthless mine trailings and rusty tin walls.

The road into Virginia City climbs through the hills along a paved highway that was no doubt a muddy dirt trail that people from across the globe traveled in the latter half of the nineteenth century in search of opportunity. Most of the buildings in the town date back to the glory days after the 1849 discovery of gold. An old school house tells of the families that came and a saloon is evidence of a different way to create wealth through a more insidious form of entertainment. The buildings are alive with history and seem to be whispering that if one only tarry for a time the secrets that are buried there might be revealed.

As we drove along the main street of Virginia City I found myself feeling the spirit of its settlers of old, people hoping against all hope of finding the mother lode or earning enough to survive by providing services of one kind or another. “Who were the folks who traveled here?” I wondered. What motivated them to leave everything they had ever known to travel to this desert like place where there were no guarantees that their efforts might be rewarded? What dangers lurked? How many if them left broke or forever changed?

We like to romanticize the old west but it was truly a harsh existence. There were many dangers not the least of which was being broken by the challenges. Somehow the folks who came here never thought that perhaps the land they were invading might already belong to Native Americans whose roots were hundreds of years old. They somehow assumed that they had a right to make claims of ownership without compensating those that they displaced. I truly wonder how they could not have known that there was something a bit wrong with their thinking, but then I wasn’t there. Humankind’s journey has been fraught with battles between opposing groups claiming ownership of land since the beginning of time.

Virginia City is a place where time seems to have stopped. It is a tangible piece of history that tells us a story of folks desperate to make something more of their lives. Fortunes were made and lost there. Lives were treated to elation and great disappointment. We have romanticized those tales and made them part of the tradition of the hero’s journey when perhaps they were little more than ordinary efforts to survive. Maybe back then it took great courage just to eke out a living from one day to the next, but there was probably very little glamor in any corner of places like Virginia City.

My paternal ancestors never ventured very far from the land east of the Mississippi River. It was my maternal grandparents eventually found their way to Houston, Texas from Austria Hungary. They had heard stories of a new kind of black gold, oil. While they never engaged in the search for the goo that gushed from the earth they understood that other kinds of services might be needed and they were willing to work long hours cleaning other people’s messes to provide a decent living for themselves. I suspect that their story is mirrored in the lives of those who set out to tackle the old west. Many never became rich but they found ways to work and enjoy a better lifestyle than they might otherwise have had. I suppose this is what people everywhere have always done.

We now debate whether or not this decision or that choice of our ancestors was right and just without ever knowing what peoples’ real motivations were. It is in reality a kind of self righteous judgement on our parts for we will never be able to truly understand what life was like or how the thinking of the past influenced people. Until we are able to walk in a person’s shoes we are only conjecturing as to their thinking and there is something rather presumptuous about that.

I am fascinated by the old west and all of history. Our human imperfections are in full view in the chronicles of the human story. The people who came before us made mistakes just as each of us does even now no matter how well intentioned we might be. We can never judge the actions of others without demonstrating some of our own imperfections. Perhaps it is best just to learn from them and to change our own ways rather than judging whether are not they were worthy of our respect. What happened happened in a world far different from our own. For now it’s just fun to visit the places where people once did their best to make life just a bit better for themselves and their families. It’s really cool to see vestiges of how they lived and to realize the scope of human efforts through the evolution of time.