Thursday, January 19, 2017

Part Five: Old Fashioned Wars (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)

Dear Sunny -

Your husband, Reverend John Samuel Stephenson, proves himself a charismatic speaker and a dedicated pastor (particularly with the youth). Soon, he's sent to St. Martin in the Fields Church in the wealthy suburb of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, where he is named the Assistant to the Curate.

You move from your townhouse in Germantown to a larger, drafty house in Chestnut Hill, where the heat is broken. During the weekdays, your children are off at school - a new school where all the other children have hired drivers in luxury automobiles, while yours have their daddy in a wood-sided station wagon. You are often home alone and sick, due to the damp chill in the house and all the cigarettes you smoke.

Nancy loves her new fancy school. She has art classes and piano lessons and field days! ....I wonder if having small children makes you think back to your own schoolhouse in Eleanora. Do you ever smell burning coal, chalk clouds and pencil shavings? Or imagine the feel of a paper book beneath your hand and a worn wooden desk under your elbows? Back then, are your brothers "breaker boys"? Going off to work early every morning with tin lunch buckets and hobnailed boots, caps, handkerchiefs on their chins and chewing tobacco between their teeth? Returning every night black as crows with aching backs and swollen, blood-encrusted fingers? Or do you and your siblings all stay inside your schoolhouse with your studies, since your papa is the Mine Superintendent and makes a little bit more than the others? ...Perhaps you don't like to think about Eleanora. It's far nicer, I imagine, to look at your daughters and son - all ignorant to the kind of pain and fright you face as a child.

...And yet, as much as you might like, you can't hide them from the world. Early Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, before the family leaves for church, Nancy stands in the dining room, listening to the radio in the corner, from which a reporter hollers breaking news. Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor. Volunteers and servicemen-on-leave are told to report to police and fire stations to see if help is needed. Walk, the newsman emphasizes, do not run and cause hysteria. Commercials for Jello play. The reporter returns to read death tolls and ship counts and to make mention of the traffic in Honolulu, Hawaii. Nancy has just turned 12 a few days before. As you listen to the news, do you inhale suddenly, causing a fit of coughing? Or are you lighting a cigarette with shaky fingers? Is the coffee in your hands spilling from cup to saucer? I can picture Nancy standing between wallpapered walls, wearing her Sunday best, while her blue eyes are wide and wild with confusion and fright.

The day after the attack, the United States declares war on the Empire of Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declare war on America and in turn, America declares war on Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s fascist Italy.

Soon there are air raid drills in schools and food shortages, the distribution of meat and sugar coupons. Nancy has a breakdown. Weeks after she turns 12, weeks after the United States enters World War II, she refuses to go to school. I don't blame her. In school, bomb drills interrupt mathematics lessons and the naive chatter of children recounting adult conversations and overheard news reports, surely, cannot be avoided. Today, she blames hormones and nerves. As the eldest child and now a young lady herself, she can’t so easily ignore the fears of her fellow citizens, her friends and family. She writes “left mid-year” in her notes next to 1941. She misses one week of school.

Nancy’s inability to return to school those few days (she thinks back now), probably worries you and John a great deal, but I like to imagine that during that week, you and young Nancy sit with playing cards, stacks of books and knitting needles with yarn. While everyone else goes off to work and school, you, mother and daughter, sit with blankets and black tea and bowls of oatmeal - reading, and knitting and talking. And whenever reports about the war cut into your radio music, you switch it off and Nancy plays the piano, while you sit scribbling flower patches and sailboat sketches. Maybe Nancy builds a fire in the hearth of that house - stacks split logs, gathers and wedges kindling into every crack, crumples newspaper pages and presses them beneath the wood before taking a lit match and kissing the flame to every paper corner until a blaze bursts into a small sun. This makes you smile, I like to think, as you sit back, inhaling the heat. 

I am 33 years old, a mother now too, and I still need an occasional retreat to my mother's arms. For it appears, 75 years later, that our world is still run by violent, self-absorbed little men who want, more than anything, to rule like tyrannical kings and conquerors. In 1941, America fights fascist dictators. In 2016, America elects one.

I, of course, don't know your opinion on the matter. I am 7 years old at your funeral, so not many opportunities for political discussions between us before then. I do hope in the light of your current space, you can see time stretched around you like a quilt of maps and lines. And I hope that you are smiling as you get this message, thinking, Calm down, great-grandchild, you are overreacting.

People tell me he's a populist. I agree. He's that too. But mostly, I fear, he's a fascist - an egocentric authoritarian looking for power through a third world war - an old fashioned war with the draft and bloody beach battles and nuclear weapons - a war he can set up on a  tabletop terrain map of the seven continents and five oceans with little army action figures and metal tanks and battleships and submarines.

Already we are entrenched in so many wars - so many wars I cannot even list them all, let alone fight them, but here are a few. I'm sure you'll be familiar with some of these these. (These are not wars declared by Congress, but wars started by the people, at the people - wars risen out of prejudices, ignorance, fear, and pride.)

There is a war on Women and Girls and it is global and violent and as complex as all the individual cultures where females are fighting for equality, a voice, votes, and respect. In our American culture there is a civil war currently between Misogyny and Feminism. Unfortunately for progress, Misogyny wins November 9, 2016 when its king claims the highest seat in our government. Tomorrow, Friday, January 20, 2017, his inauguration takes place, hopefully in the dreadful rain. The following day, The Women's March on Washington will happen, along with hundreds upon hundreds of other smaller "sister" marches around the globe. The mission of the Women's March on Washington is this:
We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families - recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.
I fear his embarrassment from this bold and beautiful act of citizens walking in solidarity. I worry he will retaliate by taunting his followers into violence against the peaceful protesters. I also worry that he will wait a little while. Then when he eventually provokes and engages other countries into war (or joins with Russia, as it, through quiet force, claims country after country, stealthily stealing world domination as if life were a big bloody game of Risk), I fear, the president will reenlist the draft, which will be horrifying enough, but I fear he will include women, old women particularly, then explain his reasoning in a Tweet at 2a.m. (Here I would explain to you, Sunny, what a Tweet is, but I'm not really sure myself - only I guess I could say that it's like an instant telegram for the world.) Anyway, his telegram Tweet might read:
What ladies? All you girls wanted equality. Now you have it. Go fight for me. Sad! 

And the only way to dodge his draft (aside from building a boat and hiding away at sea) is to be home and pregnant or participating in one of his beauty contests. And with technology today, he could easily find out who attends these marches by hacking social media and cell phones. Then he could place these women, these peaceful protesters, at the top of his draft lists, sending us all away to die in his faraway old fashioned wars where like astronauts we will be ordered to shove his company flag into the ground of newly occupied colonies (only after, of course, we've nuked them, and captured, tortured and  raped the survivors). When at home we demand a change or peace, the republicans in office will be frightened into silence - afraid to lose his support or his supporters' votes - bullied away from doing what's right.

I do, of course, hope that I am overreacting.

Image result for mussolini quotes women

But on with the wars....There is a war against African Americans and Mexican Americans and Muslim Americans. There is a war between Man and Mother Earth: attacks on African elephants and rhinoceros, attacks on the ozone and the oceans and the ice caps, attacks on our rain forests and the American Indians. There is a war on Science and a war on our Constitution. There is a war on Education and there is a war on the Educated. There is a worldwide web of unholy holy wars where self-righteous religious rage is plowing down innocents in the streets; stabbing priests on church altars and gunning down dancers. There is a war on American Diversity. There is a war on Homosexuals and Transgender Americans. There is a war on all those brave enough to be unique and outspoken and bright. And there is a deep, psychological (and possibly irreversible) war happening on the minds of our American children: Look, (America is telling our youth), we know we tell you not to bully, to quit lifting the skirts of the girls in your class and to stop pushing them down with your hands and your words. We know we scold you for fighting and for name calling, but...alright, listen, so it turns out we've been lying to you. Truthfully, the key to popularity isn't kindness. If you want friends, you really just need to be insufferably offensive (a misogynist, white-supremacist, homophobic bully). Only then will the other children think that you're funny and cool (or they'll fear you and therefore pretend to be your friend, which is sort of the same thing). So, go on and tease, no, better yet, torment ANYONE and EVERYONE who appears different from you. It'll work, trust us, just look at our president. 

America needs to be a better role model for our children. They see what's going on. They see it all. And with their growing brains and impressionable hearts, they are going to do what we do and say what we say. This has not changed since 1941. We still cannot hide war from children. 

"Live and let live!" Grandma Nancy says last year on Christmas Day, while we discuss the most recent terrorist attack. She is in her mid-80s. She's a great-grandmother now too.

After she says this, for days, I find myself repeating the old proverb again and again. It's so simple and yet, so perfect. Yes! LIVE (your own best life) AND LET (everyone else who isn't hurting you) LIVE (their best lives too!) For goodness sake, (I want to shout, Sunny!) quit ignoring/disregarding/shouting over/murdering people who think differently from you. Talk about it and AGREE TO DISAGREE. I mean, debate. Talk it out. And learn to at least (with some caution and occasional distance) understand the other side. Live and let live. American politicians and citizens aren't even attempting compromise. We're all just yelling with our hands over our ears. But if we want American democracy to survive and thrive, we need to stop this US vs. THEM. In fact, the whole world needs to graduate from this antiquated idea. We need it to be: US FOR THEM and THEM FOR US. Because, the truth is, our little world needs all of us and all of them.

Since the election, I have been in a war of my own: me and my feelings of worthlessness. I am a woman and a "stay-at-home-mom" and when I return to work, I will be a teacher to young children. Since the election I have wanted to run across the country telling every girl and woman I see that she is more than her hips and lips and legs and ovaries and breasts. That she is a builder - a builder of societies, life, and her own destiny. Sometimes, I fantasize about playing a non-traditional woman in our American culture. I think about what it might feel like to say that I am an astrophysicist or a brain surgeon or a senator, an oceanographer, a professional basketball player, a carpenter, or an engineer. I feel jealousy toward female lawyers and architects and city mayors. Because I want so badly to add more weight to this lopsided scale of gender equality. I want to do more and be more. I want to be someone girls look up to and think "I didn't know girls could be that!"  But then I realize that it isn't my fault that my society makes motherhood and the teaching of small children out to be trivial "womens work". There are cultures in the world that regard education as one of the most important positions in a community. For they understand that the care of a child is bigger than it appears. It is bigger than me and it is far bigger than him. For every child is a life - a life who touches so many other lives. A child is one moving piece in an exponentially expanding machine - a generation machine where every child is contributing to our world's collective future just by living their individual lives. This is what I keep trying to tell myself. That and if I want change, it isn't worthless or wasteful to spend my days caring, teaching and loving children.

"The education that will lead the way to a new humanity has one end alone: leading the individual and society to a higher state of development. The concept becomes clearer if we realize that mankind has to fulfill a collective mission on earth, a mission involving all of humanity and, therefore, each and every human being."
---Maria Montessori 

For my little girl, when she is 12, in the year 2027, I wonder what she will hear on the radio. Will she stand between the walls of our dining room, listening with tender ears to reports of world war? Or by then will we be on a boat, hiding away at sea? Whatever our destiny, I will make sure that she knows that she can take all the time she needs in my arms, beneath a pile of blankets and books.

But still, I have hope because I have to have hope - for her. Therefore, I hope when she is 12, in the year 2027, I hope more than anything that when we turn the radio on, the morning of December 7, we hear the voices of a vibrant, happy chorus of multicultural American children singing praises of WORLD PEACE.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Part Four: Books (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)

Dear Sunny -

After college, John works for his father in the wool manufacturing industry, but he doesn’t like it very much. He wants to be a preacher. John Samuel Sr., however, doesn’t see religious service as a legitimate career path for his last living son. So John waits and works. Then in 1928, his father passes away and John joins the Philadelphia Divinity School.

For 8 years, you live at the Stephenson Homestead on Main Street in Philadelphia, while John studies and works as the assistant minister in a nearby parish.  Next, you move to a townhouse in Germantown, a poor suburb of Philadelphia. The church where John works has a convent. Nancy likes to visit the nuns there. She is nine. Your other daughter, Helen is six. Your son, John, is three. One day, an ambulance is called for you ---alcohol, pneumonia, depression--- these "demons" send you to the hospital many times, I’m told. But aside from the bottles and the cigarette boxes and the dreadful depressions, you also fall inside the bindings of open books. Grandma Nancy calls you a voracious reader.  Books are so generous - aren't they? Portable stories inked permanently onto paper pages for our eyes to run, roam and ramble along, while our minds strengthen and stretch and build us into stronger, more enriched persons.  I imagine you reading about world explorers, impressionism, fauna, flora, Mexican pottery, poetry, biographies, human biology and even silly romance dramas. I see you tracking your way through mystery novels, more out of necessity than anything, that needing to know, that curiosity some books give us. I imagine you reciting psalms and Shakespeare sonnets and the poems of Emily Dickinson. Do you have a favorite, familiar story? -one you retreat to when you feel heavy with worry? ...............................................................I am currently reading a book my brother gave me for my birthday. It's called, How to Be a Woman and it's by British Journalist, Caitlin Moran. It is hilarious. Last night, as I lie in bed reading, I start chuckling to myself about this part in the book where she's drunk at a wedding and on a tour of a fancy house with a glass of red wine when out of nowhere a bat flies in through an open window and crashes into her face. Her reaction is to scream, "WHAT THE FUCKING?" and throw her red wine across the white carpet. My reaction to her reaction (of receiving a bat slap to the face) causes me to giggle / fart and then CACKLE and FART- CACKLE - FART - FART - CACKLE. My husband, Scott sits at the computer by the window. He turns immediately to give me a stern shush, but this only makes it worse. He wants me to be quiet because our 16-month-old baby's bedroom is beside ours and we like it when she stays asleep at night. I cover my face with my book until my hyperventilating slows into normal breathing. I read for awhile longer before turning off the light and chortling myself to sleep. Next I'm going to read a two book biography on Eleanor Roosevelt.  SHOULD BE A HOOT!

Are there any good books to read when you're a child? My favorite book growing up is called The Little Match Girl. It is by Hans Christian Andersen. It's about a homeless child on New Years Eve who's starving and barefoot and bareheaded. She freezes to death in an alley, lighting the matches she's supposed to sell. I am fascinated by suffering. I seem to seek it out. I think it's because I always have mittens, knit hats, boots, books and breakfast. What is it like to be a little girl in that coal company town? Are you beaten like The Little Match Girl when you don't make any money? Are you terribly bored? Hungry? Forgotten? Are you overworked with raw blisters on your knuckles and scrapes and scars on your knees? With washboards and homemade soap and boiled water  ---how many rinses does it take to get that black dust out of cotton? How heavy are the water pails when they are full and how far must you walk to the pump? Do you play hopscotch, jump rope, baseball, kick the can? Do you make dolls out of old flour bags and run races in the middle of the black gravel lanes?  Do you have a swimming hole in the summer and a great hill for the snow in winter? Do you learn cuss words and practice saying them whenever you're alone? Are you loved? Or is love not a matter discussed by the poor at the start of the 20th century? When your daddy carries you to the hospital, when he leaves you there with the nurses and doctors, does he tell you he loves you? Does he bend down, take off his hat and kiss your feverish forehead, then wipe your wet eyes and runny nose with his coarse coal-stained fingers, before whispering, "I love you, sweet Carolyn May?" Or does he mumble some inaudible, meaningless phrase like, "be good, kid" before hurrying off for a drink? Do you get your need to drink from him? Do you get your depression from your momma? Are you just an unlucky combination of two unfortunate souls? Does she take her own life and the life of the baby in her body, feeling an irrevocable doom birthing another child, her eighth, into the dark, dusty world of her terribly sad circumstances? Or is she full of light and life and devotion for God and her children? Is she an optimist, a painter, a songbird? I just hope you are a loved child. Neglected children can have such a difficult time in life.

When your own children are off at school, are you chain smoking in the kitchenette of your townhouse, watching the clock tick to the end of the school day? Do you stand by a roasting pan, a paper package of pork and a mesh bag of little yellow onions, while you hold a recipe from a magazine and a half-lit cigarette? Are you trapped in that townhouse, stuck in the mine of your time in history as an American housewife of the 1930s? Is this home your own personal mental asylum? Or is it your quiet castle? Your sanctuary? Gram says you are a wonderful mother despite all you have gone through. But at the time of your ambulance rides, your children do not always understand what is happening. For most children are not given the entirety of sad stories. Instead, they see what they see and are often told very little.