They Just Set Women Back

St Frances Cabrini

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.

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Finding a Long Lost Friend

Kathy

I met Kathy at a local Tex Mex restaurant. It had been well over fifty years since we had seen each other in person. She and I had both once lived on Belmark Street in southeast Houston. Both of our mothers were widows and both of us were products of an education at Mt. Carmel High School. I was in the Class of 1966 and she was a member of the Class of 1967, the group with whom I might have shared my teenage years had my parents not decided to send me to first grade a year early. We had both lived through a lifetime of memories in the years since last being together and it was only through the miracle of Facebook that we had reconnected once again.

I adored Kathy’s mother. She was a tiny woman who was nonetheless a giant in my eyes. She seemed capable of staring down the devil if need be. She was incredibly courageous and one of the few women that I knew who actually pursued a career even after she became a mom  and her husband was still alive. Kathy’s mom and mine often attended dances and events sponsored by Parents Without Partners, a social group that gave them a place to be with people who understood what it was like to raise a family alone.

When I knew Kathy on Belmark Street she was known by the nickname, “Candy.” She was stunningly beautiful even as a child and only became more lovely as she grew. She had the same spunky spirit as her mom and I so enjoyed doing things with her. She was the perfect counterpoint to my shy and reserved nature. When I was around her I felt at ease and able to just be myself. She was a fun person who helped me push aside the awkwardness that sometimes made me wonder if I was ever going to find my way in the adult world. Her joyous nature rubbed off on me, and she made me forget all of my childhood angst.

One of our favorite activities was playing dolls on my driveway. Kathy had one of the very first Barbie dolls and I was in awe of the model like figure of the toy. I stuck with my Madame Alexander doll that was lovely in its own right. We collected milk cartons and boxes and transformed them into furniture for our dolls. We used scraps of cloth to make rugs and pillows. My mom showed me how to design a four poster bed for my doll out of a cigar box and four clothes pins. We set up our make believe homes and pretended that our dolls were stewardesses living in exotic places around the world. It was more fun than almost anything else that I did in those days. I treasure the memories and the things that Kathy taught me when we were together.

Sometimes our play was interrupted by earnest discussions of how we might actually become hostesses in the sky once we were old enough to apply for jobs that we considered highly glamorous. It was after all still in the days of infancy for mass air travel and anything associated with the industry appeared to be quite exciting to us. We had so many hopes and dreams about being independent women like our moms but on a far grander scale.

Kathy’s home was different from mine. There were no beige walls or conservative ways of decorating. Instead bright colors transformed each room into a happy place that made me smile. Kathy’s mom kept a bowl of candy on the dining table and always urged me to take whatever I wanted when I visited there. I could not imagine such a tempting treat lasting more than a few seconds at my own house, and yet it appeared that Kathy and her younger siblings rarely even touched the sweets. I decided that making something routine and commonplace made it less enticing and thought that Kathy’s mom was a very bright woman indeed for thinking of such a thing.

Kathy and her family moved away when I was a freshman in high school and while her mom and mine continued a fast friendship, I had become devoted to my studies and a small circle of classmates with whom I spent my rare hours of freedom. Kathy and I saw less and less of each other even as we no doubt passed one another in the hallways of our school. Life took hold and we went our separate ways marrying, raising children and working. The years went by one by one, slowly at first and then at a rate so fast that we hardly noticed that a whole lifetime had passed.

Suddenly we were older women, retired from our jobs, enjoying our grandchildren and finding more and more free time on our hands. Then we found each other on Facebook and began to enjoy the commentaries that we each posted. I realized that somehow even with all of the changes that had taken place in our lives at heart we were still those young girls with dolls and dreams and incredible moms. It seemed time to have a reunion, and so we decided to meet for lunch and to reminisce.

I am never quite certain how it is possible to reconnect with a long lost friend so quickly, but we had no problem whatsoever keeping a conversation going. In fact, we devoted an hour to speaking of our past, present, and future for each decade that we had been away from each other. I was a bit shocked when I finally glanced at my watch and realized that we had been chatting away for nearly five hours and I suppose that we might have continued even longer save for the fact that other responsibilities were calling us home.

It was grand seeing Kathy again and knowing that our shared experiences had somehow carried us through every challenge that came our way. Like our moms we are survivors who have seen both the good times and the most horrific and yet we are still standing. Kathy is as beautiful as she ever was and she still has the ability to make me smile. She has become a font of wisdom from whom I learned so much in just a few short hours. I’d like to think that we will continue our meetings now that we have found each other again. We share something quite special and I suspect that our mothers are smiling down on us from heaven, happy that we have found to connect again.

Oh Honey!

IMG_0655

My Aunt Polly was a hoot, a fireball, an original, my godmother. She was the most energetic person I have ever known until she wasn’t anymore. Age caught up with her and she began to slow down around the time she was in her nineties. Before then few would have been able to guess her age. She appeared to be a good ten or twenty years younger than she actually was, but life events caught up with her, leaving her with a more careworn look on her face. Soon after her ninetieth birthday her house burned down with along with all of the photos and home movies and other small treasures that meant so much to her. She and her husband had been setting out Christmas decorations when the flames began. They were both safe but the stress of losing their home took its toll.

Aunt Polly settled into a new life style in independent living quarters where she hosted domino and card games on a regular basis. Her children and grandchildren often joined her in those pursuits and her laughter and gregarious spirit returned once again. Then she endured a series of deaths of people near and dear to her. She sat at my mother’s side only hours before my mom, her little sister, died. Not long after that her son Jack also passed and she showed up to his funeral bent and using a cane. She was subdued and even though she tried to be her old self I knew that she was suffering greatly from the loss. When I next saw her at her husband’s funeral I hardly recognized her. She sat quietly in a wheelchair looking frail and vulnerable. This was certainly not the tough courageous woman that I had always known.

Last week my Aunt Polly died quietly, but even as she slipped away most of us who knew her thought that she would recover and soon enough be her old feisty self, because more than anything she was a fighter. She never backed down from asserting herself or taking care of weaker souls like myself. Many a time she became my hero as I watched her in action. She was a true feminist before there was such a thing or such a word for it. My mother used to say that her sister Polly wasn’t afraid of the devil himself.

When my parents decided to hurriedly enroll me in the first grade when I was still five years old I was terrified and miserable. The fact that my mother made me some new dresses to wear and bought me a lunch box did not ameliorate my fears or discomfort. I felt abandoned and alone as I tried to adjust to a new environment. It was my Aunt Polly who came to the rescue.

One day I was at school eating lunch and flicking away the ants that always seemed to invade the inner sanctum of my tin lunch container when Aunt Polly suddenly appeared like a super hero. She had come to see how I was doing and when she saw the state of my food with all of those critters swarming on it her immediate response was to hug me and declare, “Oh honey! I’m going to take care of this” and she did. She marched straight to the principal’s office and raised a ruckus. Not only did the surprised administrator get me something without insect infestation to eat, but also ordered a thorough cleaning and extermination for the building. Never again did I have a problem.

My Aunt Polly was one of the first women that I knew who held a full time job and raised a family. She worked a number of different places before finally settling down at the Post Office. For a time she added to her coffers by serving as a cashier at the Trail Drive Inn and her extra perk for that job was to get free admission to the movies for family. I loved feeling like a celebrity as she waved our car into the vast parking lot without paying a fee. We saw so many movies there and she often joined us for the second feature once the box office closed. It was so much fun to hear her and my mom talking about the stories and the characters as though they were a couple of teenage girls rather than adults with children. I learned that Aunt Polly had a crush on Jeff Chandler which didn’t much surprise me because a had an uncanny resemblance to her husband Jack.

We spent lots of time at Aunt Polly’s house and she at ours. No invitations or even announcements were needed. We simply got together anytime anyone felt like it. Thus it was that on the night of my senior prom Aunt Polly showed up at our house. I was moping in the dark while pretending to watch television because I did not get to go to the big event. My mother had tried to cheer me up earlier by insisting that those kind of venues are always overrated and I was missing nothing of importance. Somehow her encouragement had fallen flat on my bad mood. It was Aunt Polly who once again saved the day when she came in and asked me what was wrong. When I told her what was going on and how I felt she took me in her arms and said “Oh honey!” while I cried. In that simple phrase there was so much truth and compassion. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Aunt Polly gave me a beautiful bridal shower before I married. She came to visit me when I had my babies. Somehow she was always there when I needed her most and she did so without fanfare and few words even though her normal personality was akin to Rosalind Russell’s in Auntie Mame. I was in awe of her because she was the counterpoint to my own quiet nature.

Aunt Polly was born Pauline Ulrich in 1923, along with her twin sister Wilma whom we variously called Speedy or Claudia. She grew to be tall and beautiful with slender frame, blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother always said that Aunt Polly had to learn how to be tough in a family of eight kids or be pushed around by her siblings or the kids from the neighborhood who ridiculed the members of the immigrant family. Aunt Polly learned quickly how to fend for herself and she rarely backed down from a challenge of any kind.

My aunt married one of the sweetest men I have ever known named Jack Ferguson and the two of them had two sons, Jack Jr. and Andrew. My Uncle Jack died rather young and Aunt Polly eventually married another Jack when she was in her sixties and still looking as pretty as a thirty year old. The mantra of her life was to have as much fun as possible and she was known for the big parties that she held in her backyard with mountains of food and musical entertainment. She traveled all over the world once her children were grown and she regularly stopped by for visits with my mother, bringing her little gifts and checking on her well being.

A bright light has gone out with her passing. She was truly one of a kind and totally irreplaceable. I doubt that I will ever forget the moment when she came to see my mother who was dying in the hospital. She sat beside my mother’s bed along with her twin sister and she reassured my mom with words that only she knew how to deliver, “We’re here now honey. Everything is going to be okay.” The look on my mother’s face told us all that it was just what she needed to hear.

I am certain that my Aunt Polly has joined her siblings, her husbands, and her son in heaven. She was a good woman, my aunt, and my godmother. She taught me much about how to live.

I’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

people at concert
Photo by Vishnu R Nair on Pexels.com

 

Back in the sixties when Saturday night rolled around the place to be for teenagers was at the Saturday night dances at Mr. Carmel High School in southeast Houston. Back then the two most popular radio stations for teens were KILT and KNUZ.  It was KNUZ that more or less adopted the Catholic high school by advertising the dances, sending DJs to play music, and helping to find bands to provide live music. In its heyday some of the best groups found their way to Mt. Carmel Drive to entertain teens like me in a wholesome atmosphere that was chaperoned by adults. Even my very watchful mom was quite content that I would enjoy a safe time at those gatherings, so she actually encouraged me to attend each week.

The school cafeteria was lined with folding chairs for the occasion and all of the lunch tables were moved to create a nice area for the revelry. The bands and DJs worked from the stage. The lights were dimmed and the fun began. It was a glorious place to meet up with friends, make new acquaintances, and hear some great music. For those of us who did more observing than dancing it was also a people watching bonanza.

I was shy, awkward, and as thin as a rail back then. I had little confidence in myself because my ultra fine hair would never hold the bouffant styles that were so popular back then and I still appeared to be about twelve years old. It would take me quite awhile to bloom and find my courage so I tended to either find a group of girlfriends with whom to essentially hide myself or I simply sat in one of the chairs along the perimeter hoping that by some miracle I might actually be asked to dance while also worrying that someone might.

The world was still a long way from allowing young women to dance by themselves or with a big group if they were so inclined. I had also been taught that being aggressive enough to actually take the lead and ask one of boys to dance with me was very bad form. So I spent most of my Saturdays dreaming that one day my Prince Charming might bravely rescue me from wallflower status. I felt like Rip van Winkle hibernating for years without notice. I may as well have been a fixture on the wall. That is how invisible I felt. Of course it never occurred to me that the guys might be feeling exactly the same way. It was an uncomfortable time of life.

There were a few guys who showed a bit of interest when I was still a freshman in spite of my youthful appearance. One was a very short young man who had noticed that I was not yet five feet tall. We had some good times dancing without much conversation and on most Saturdays he came looking for me. Of course since I was a late bloomer it was inevitable that the day would come when I finally added some inches to my stature. Over the space of one summer I endured a growth spurt that left me standing five feet six inches tall. When my dance partner returned at the beginning of the new school year he found me in my usual spot. As soon as I stood to accompany him to the dance floor it was apparent that I was now towering over him. Without a word he literally ran away and never again came back to choose me as his partner. I never really blamed him but I sure missed the opportunity to enjoy my own love of dancing.

For the next many years it might be said that I went to the Saturday night event but did not hit the dance floor, not even when I tried my hand at leaving my chair and flirting and hinting with some of the guys that I wanted to dance with no strings attached. It was not until I had become a senior that some young men from schools other than my own began to take a leap of faith and ask me to dance with them. There was one particular guy who was a fabulous hoofer with a funny style. We would start out in front of one another, but invariably he would move all around the floor leaving me to dance seemingly alone until he once again found his way back to me. He often laughingly insisted that I was a great dancer who needed to loosen up just a bit. We never bothered to learn much about each other. As far as we were concerned we were just dance partners, and for me it was so much better than sitting on the sidelines all night long.

I remember one evening when I spent hours dancing with this person. The next week in school one of the boys in my class commented that he had never imagined that I even knew how to dance. I wasn’t quite sure how to take his pronouncement, so I essentially ignored it. What I really wanted to do is let him know that if he had taken the time to ask me to cut the rug with him he might have found out sooner that I was more than just a very studious girl.

Eventually I graduated from high school and found a sudden burst of popularity in college. I went to a street dance at the University of Houston and never missed a beat. I suppose that everyone has their shining moment and that was the beginning of mine. Not long after  that I met my husband who loves to tell everyone that he was thunderstruck when he first saw me. I felt the same about him and the rest is fifty years of blissful history. Unfortunately he absolutely hates to dance and so my dreams of having a partner for the future was dashed. It was not until my grandsons became older that I was able to let loose on the dance floor again. 

The happy ending to the story is that in the modern world there are no holds barred when it comes to dances. Anyone can just hit the floor and move to the music all alone or with a big group. Nobody thinks less of a woman who asks someone to be her partner. The whole process has become so democratic and fun. It is no longer fraught with the angst that so dominated my feelings during my high school years. I’ve come a long way, baby, and and so have my fellow women. I love it!

Whodunnit?

Jack the Ripper

It’s rather ironic and appropriate that it is a dark and rainy day as I write about the Jack the Ripper Tour that we took while we were in London. It was a Friday evening at the end of a week in which the sun had shone gloriously on us every single day. We had seen so many of the treasures that make the city so remarkable and had enjoyed good food in spite of rumors that the cuisine often leaves something to be desired. Everything about our visit had been picture perfect, so it was only right to have a threat of rain as we boarded a double decker tour bus in search of the infamous places where five women were brutally murdered by a killer who was never found, but came to be known as Jack the Ripper.

We used our age and the fact that we were the first to arrive at the bus station to be the first in line to enter the bus. This advantage gave us a seat at the top of the bus that had a cover so that our enthusiasm was not the least bit dampened by the chilly precipitation that was moving over the city. A gifted movie director could not have created a better backdrop for the tale that our guide was about to unfold. His thick Scottish accent only made the experience seem somehow a bit more sinister.

I suppose that I had thought that a visit to London’s east end and the Whitechapel area would have taken me back in time to a place where the clock stood still. I did not expect to instead see modern buildings and signs of great progress that cloaked the poverty and want that had once defined the area. The story that we were hearing was of people whose existences were so dreary that they had often lost hope. In particular the women whose lives were so brutally taken were victims not just of a murderous rage, but of a society that had thrown them into the trash heap long before they were killed.

As I listened to the circumstances of each woman who met such a merciless ending I felt that the real tragedy lay in the way that they were perceived by a society. They were attempting to survive in a world so cruel that they had little hope of finding a semblance of peace. These ladies were sometimes abused by men, spurned as being somehow indecent, and left to their own limited resources to get from one cruel day to the next. As our journey through their nights of horror progressed I found myself pondering the sadness of their fates, and seeing them as vivid examples of the societal problems that have challenged women throughout history.

There was one victim who had come from Sweden to learn the housekeeping trade. At some point she became pregnant without benefit of marriage and was thus spurned forevermore. Left alone in a city that was foreign to her with no support systems of family or friends she had to turn to any means possible just to have food and a place to stay at night. She was at the mercy of people who viewed her as a fallen woman and her opportunities for a decent life were forever gone.

Another of the victims had been thrown out of her home by her husband, a situation that was quite common at the time. She ended up in a poor house lodged in a building that is still standing to this very day. There she had a bed and food, but few prospects for a better future. Eventually she left to be on her own, only to somehow encounter the man who murdered her.

There have been hundreds of theories about who Jack the Ripper might have been. Some believed that he got away with his crimes because he was a man of influence, perhaps a royal personage or someone who worked in law enforcement. Others considered that he might have been a doctor, a barber or a butcher because of his seeming skill in ripping the bodies of his victims apart. The saddest aspect of his crime spree is that he was almost operating in plain sight, but because his victims were at the bottom of the societal pecking order his actions seemed to have gone unnoticed. He was simply one of many men who preyed on the hopelessness of women caught in untenable situations.

Our group became rather quiet by the end of our journey. Somehow we were all thinking less on the idea of whodunnit and more on the sadness of the five women’s lives. In an ironic twist they are now remembered and even mourned. We fidgeted as we thought of their how awful they were treated not just by the killer but by all who saw themselves as more decent. They lived in the darkest shadows of a city where status was parceled out with a punishing stinginess. Simply by dent of birth they were relegated to unimaginable hardship. The true crime was the way in which they were shunned so cruelly by people who never took the time to know them.

At the end of the tour we were left at the Sherlock Holmes Pub where I suppose we were supposed to enjoy some merriment and a few laughs after our evening’s entertainment. Somehow instead we felt the need to just go quietly back to our hotel where we said little about what we had seen. Each of us were left with our own thoughts, and mine we steeped in great sadness with a touch of anger that anyone would ever have to live as the five women did. How many more like them were there? How many more like them live in fear even now? What must we do to ultimately end the cruelty that reduces the status of little girls and leads them into lives of domination and hurt? What will it take for us to make keeping them safe a priority no matter where they may live? That is a more important question than solving an old crime.