Clark Family History

26 Jul

I’ve always loved the smell of cigar smoke.  In fact, I once went over to a man at Chicago Union Station, the big Midwest hub of Amtrak, and told him how much the smell of his cigar reminded me of my maternal grandfather, Caspar Charles Clark (1897-1976).  It’s funny how certain smells trigger memories of people from our past.  Many people hate cigar smoke but not me.  We could not leave the dinner table at 1256 Arlington Road in Lakewood, Ohio, a western suburb of Cleveland, until he’d had his postprandial cigar.  I could have done without the waiting to watch TV, but my longing for the smell has not left me.

Grandpa Clark’s Family Background and Early Biography

Caspar Charles Clark, or CCC as he and other people would sometimes refer to him, was born in 1897 in a little town called Francesville, Indiana where his father, Charley, was the town grocer.  His younger brother was named Keith and my mother has always insisted that Keith was her grandmother’s favorite.  His mother, Sarah Garrigues, was a housewife and was very involved in the Christian Church.  She was tall and thin with an elegant carriage befitting her French Huguenot ancestry. The French Huguenots fled France because of religious persecution.  In Sarah’s case, her ancestors ended up in Philadelphia where one of them came to know Benjamin Franklin.  My grandfather was always proud of his French background, of which there are two volumes of family history. 

Sadly, I was only able to meet her once.  She gave me a box full of sand with a huge shell and smaller shells.  My main impression of Indiana was that it was very hot with row after row of corn.  It was a significant meeting though, partly because she was the only great-grandparent I was able to meet.  The second time I went to Francesville was for her funeral.

Interior of Grocery Store

Exterior of Grocery Store, Worker on the left, Great-Grandfather Clark on the right.

Sarah Garrigues, Our Great-grandmother as a Young Woman

Aunt Bess was Great-Grandma Clark’s sister

His father Charley, a hard working man, was short and heavyset as an older man, although in earlier pictures one can see the family resemblance between him and Caspar.  Grandpa was never interested in his father’s family history because Azel (also spelled Asel) Clark deserted his wife, Maria Wheeler Clark, and fled to Iowa.  She was forced to raise Jerry, Jenny, and Charley by herself, relying on taking in wash from the neighbors and money from weaving rugs. 

I chose to focus my attention on the Clark family and my uncle, mother, and I traced them back to Connecticut.  They ended up in Clarksfield, Ohio because someone in the family served in the Revolutionary War and the Clark family was awarded land in the Western Reserve.  Azel Clark did manage to serve in the Civil War and Maria was later awarded his pension.  The National Archives reveal that he had black eyes, the color of Barth’s and my eyes when we were born.  Mom has said that her first funeral was that of Maria Wheeler Clark.  She said there was a very peaceful feeling in the room and that a ray of sun fell over her great-grandmother whom she had never met.

Terre Haute’s Championship Baseball Team. CCC, second from left, Top Row

Reunion of Championship Baseball Team in 1961, CCC, 2nd from left, bottom row

A passion that carried Grandpa through his childhood and teen years was a love of baseball.  Indiana State University was established as the Indiana State Normal School in Terre Haute in 1865.  That is where he went to college as an undergraduate and that is also where he batted over 400 on the school’s team.  His baseball team won the state championship in 1919.  During the summers he worked on a road crew for the railroad. 

He went on to be a catcher during spring training for the Chicago White Sox on the south side of Chicago, who were then being ridiculed as the Chicago Black Sox because some of their players threw a game.   His parents did not want him to be tainted by the team’s reputation and he reluctantly quit.  When he graduated from college, he went on to teach at his first school. It was a one-room schoolhouse.  My grandfather’s first post as a principal was at a school in Monrovia, Indiana, where he met my grandmother, a teacher. 

She went to a normal school (two-year Teachers’ school) before she met him.

Mattie Bodenhamer (note spelling of last name with “a”) went to a two-year normal (teaching) school. Her sister, Mary, is the one who paid for her education and she is also the one I believe who changed the spelling from Bodenheimer, which is the true spelling. Bodenheimer is a German Jewish (Ashkenazi) surname, so it’s surprising that Mattie’s father’s name was John Wesley. Mary was probably trying to avoid the prejudice against Germans after WW I, but it’s hard to know. When doing genealogy, remember that there are two different spellings.

Grandpa and Grandma as a young couple at the the beach right after their engagement about 1921. They were vacationing at Bass Lake with “Daskers (sp?). It also says, “She moved.”

He was a beautiful, striking man at 6 ‘ 1” with high cheekbones. My grandmother, Martha Bell Bodenheimer Clark (1896-1967), was also good-looking but diminutive in comparison, with big breasts that she wrapped in what they called a huck towel to make sure her beads hung straight.  Sadly, none of us has inherited them– not the beads but the breasts. 

The couple recalled being blissful in New York City where they married and where he did his graduate work in education at Columbia.  One of their favorite things was to attend the theatre.  My grandfather’s favorite actress was Helen Hayes, the first lady of the American theatre.  They left us their Playbills after they died and I made sure to save one of each play.

Grandma and Grandpa Clark and Their Children

Grandma Clark as a Young Mother

His second post took place after the NYC-Columbia interlude at a school in the U.P. (Upper Peninsula) of Michigan.  I’ve been there during the summer and in the course of that season it’s a beautiful region, especially along the shores of Lake Superior.  During the winter, it becomes a completely different creature.  If New York City was heaven, the U.P. was an icy hell.  My grandmother was pregnant and when she delivered her first child, a daughter, Carol, she almost died.  She was attended by what used to be called a “society doctor,” a physician who had a certain prestige and popularity. Unfortunately, he didn’t know what he was doing, and when she hemorrhaged he was at a loss.  His nurse, on the other hand, had studied up since the last time he had lost a patient, and she was able to save my grandmother.  However, baby Carol was not a happy camper as a consequence of colic.  Because my grandmother was having trouble breastfeeding and their baby didn’t like formula, my grandfather was forced to go out in the cold and walk through walls of snow that were higher than his head to obtain another woman’s breast milk.  He kept a newspaper picture of the icy tunnels in Ironwood, Michigan in his wallet for the rest of his life.

Three years after my Aunt Carol was born my mother, Martha, made her entrance.  The family lived at French Ave. initially, but they ended up moving to 1256 Arlington Rd., where my grandparents lived out the rest of their lives.  My mother has always liked big dogs and that goes back to their German Shepherd, Yippy, who lived with them from four to five years.  Eventually her father decided to give the dog away, without giving Mom a good explanation.  The dog did bite a child one summer, but she wasn’t sure that was the reason.  Yippy’s new family lived on a busy street, and he was run over.  This was a source of some bitterness on my mother’s part and I think she chiefly blamed her father.

Martha, Friend, and Carol Biking

On the other hand, he had a good sense of humor and liked to tell jokes.  My brother and I bought him joke books.  Sometimes he would do fun things that would surprise everyone.  If he came to a turnaround road made for u-turns, for instance, he would sometimes keep driving around and around it without stopping.  He was also thoughtful to my mother when she was in bed sick and often brought her sweet peas and a chocolate bar. She has happy memories of him teaching her to ride a bike and also playing catch with him with a softball, although the ball hit her in the face once and bent her nose.  She didn’t think he understood how different it was to play with a little girl versus a professional ball player.

Carol, Chris, and Martha

Fourteen and a half years after his sister Martha was born, Christopher Charles Clark made his entrance.  He was a planned child and served to buoy his parents’ marriage.  His mother was forty-five, definitely an unusual age to be having a baby, his father was forty-four, while he had one sister who was in ninth grade, and an even older one, who was in college and feeling a little left out of all the excitement going on at home.  The two girls did get to name their brother, making CCC his acronym and his nickname, Kit. When he found out his mother planned to name him Robert. he said he would have preferred that, but his mother said she wanted them to be involved.

He had a good relationship with his father, but over the years became much closer to his mother.  Since his parents were older, it was left to his sister Martha to do all the things that young parents often enjoy with their children like riding roller coasters.  Sometimes, especially when he grew a bit older, however, he felt as if he had three mothers.  He did stay close friends with Martha.

Carol, Chris, and Martha as Young Adults

Martha Clark Mapes and Barth Mapes, Carol Clark Brown and Massey Brown, Day of Carol’s wedding

Chris’s Graduation from Dennison-1962

Clark Children’s Relationship with Sarah G. Clark, Their Grandmother

Carol, Their Grandma Clark, Martha

Chris and His Grandmother

Chris and His Father Leaving Chris’s Grandmother

All three of the Clark children loved visiting their grandparents in Francesville.  The oldest, Carol, chose to be buried in the local cemetery because she had such good memories of times spent with her grandmother.  Martha  has fond memories of dancing around the room while her grandmother played the piano.  Chris loved it so much that he cried one time on the way back to Cleveland and ended up getting spanked. 

Although they had good memories of picking out penny candy at the grocery store, unfortunately, because their grandfather spent so much time in the store, the siblings didn’t get to know him as well.  He also died early of a heart attack when he was out shoveling the snow.  Grandpa was very careful of his weight, partly because his father was so overweight and that was thought to have contributed to the heart attack.

He holds the Ohio state record for years served as a junior high school principal–forty-one years–and our family was given a posthumous award for that honor.  That tells you a lot about him.  The three unifying principles for that part of our family were, in order: God, family, and education.  His three children were expected to attend school, unless they were about to keel over.  He always made the family breakfast, which was very extensive, and often included melons (he was an expert on their readiness for eating) and Cream of Wheat.  If they received any grades other than As they had to explain why.  This sounds pretty tough, but all of them were allowed to pick the colleges they wanted to go to, and having received mostly As that was achievable.   

Grandpa thought Cornell was a bit far from Cleveland, but my mother wanted to be a nutritionist and Cornell had one of the top schools in nutrition.  I don’t think my grandparents ever considered not paying for their children’s education.  My grandmother’s father didn’t believe in education for women, so her older sister paid for her to go to normal school (teachers’ college).  My grandfather was ABD (all but dissertation) from Columbia in New York City, so it was likely that he responded positively to Cornell partly because it was part of the Ivy League.  I don’t know who paid for his education, but this was the Depression and he had just married and had to stop his education in order to support his family.

My grandfather began his forty-one year stint as a principal in Lakewood, Ohio, becoming the junior high school principal at Horace Mann.  From his first year on, he started to memorize his students’ names, so that when he finished his career he knew all of them.  He was unusually bright, but I’ve always wondered if he had some kind of mnemonics system.  Twice my family ran into his former students while traveling with him around the country and he was able to call them by name.  One such occasion occurred at Mount Rushmore.  The conversations would go something like this:  “Hello, Doris.”  

“Why Mr. Clark, I can’t believe you remember me.”

“Doris, how is your brother , Bob?”  and so on.

He told us he would often ask them to solve simple math problems and they didn’t always know the answer.  They were probably so flustered at being remembered that they couldn’t concentrate.  

My mother felt he had one bad inclination and that was to be forgiving of bad behavior by a student if the person had a high I.Q.  That probably comes in part from the fact that his generation, the WWI generation, were the first ones to be given IQ tests.  The Stanford-Binet IQ test was the one used to screen WWI draftees and I believe it was still in use when I went to school.  My IQ appeared on my college transcript, but I think the tests have fallen out of favor.  It appears that the WWII generation had already begun to question them.

Clark Grandparents and Their First Set of Grandchildren

Grandpa, Grandma, and Me at Westgate, the suburban mall closest to their house

Grandma, Grandma and Me at 1256 Arlington Road

Barth as Baby with Grandma and Grandpa Clark, on North Sunset Drive in Ithaca

Happiness at 1256

It was when I was a small child that we got along the best.  He would take me for long walks when he went out for his “constitionals,” as he called them.  One thing we did was to walk to the bridge over the rails and wait for a train called the Nickel Plate to come through.  He had a nine-month appointment as a principal and would always fill his summers with some part-time job such as painting.  It was a time in our country when a white collar worker would take no shame in picking up a blue collar job.  One summer he was in charge of recreation programs for the Lakewood School System and I took pride in accompanying him as he made his stops at various schools and consulted with the recreation supervisors.  At one point I sat down and was shown how to do boondoggle (braided cord of plastic, often used as key chains), something I was never very good at, but I enjoyed being part of the recreation.  When my brother Barth and I watched T.V, my grandfather would delight in coming into the sun room and pulling our ears, especially Barth’s.  He would sometimes bring out the old toys for us to play with.  When he wasn’t with us, he would often be sweeping up the pears that the squirrels had dropped from the pear tree in back of the house.  If he were still alve, he would probably admit that he enjoyed fussing after those squirrels.  In fact, that was often the first thing I heard in the morning when I woke up.

While Grandpa, Barth, and I were in the sun room, Grandma would be cooking in the yellow kitchen with its white tile counterspace.  As she cooked, she would often chew on a fresh green bean or a piece of raw potato.   Each one of us had a special dessert or food item that she would try to include at dinner.  I liked vanilla pudding, while my Uncle Chris liked spiced peaches.  A favorite salad of all of ours was bing cherry jello with grapefruit.  The kitchen had a small table in the shape of a crescent that jutted out of the wall and its window looked out on the garden where my grandfather liked to gather black berries.  She would often have her afternoon tea there with slices of lemon and a sweet roll. 


Fredonia, New York, Halfway Point Between Ithaca and Cleveland–Little Carol Brown, Massey Brown Grandpa Clark, Little Barth, Big Barth, Me in Front of Grandpa

Me, Mom, Carol, and Little Carol

Kathy, Carol, and Barth at 1256 Arlington Road

Kathy and Carol in Ithaca, NY

Grandma had a third grandchild, Carol, her daughter Carol’s daughter.  Her favorite story about Carol involved Carol changing into her black and white bathing suit.  Carol didn’t want her grandmother to see her naked, so she went out the front door and changed behind one of the bushes in the front yard.  At least, she thought she was behind the bush, but she forgot that although her grandmother couldn’t see her changing, she was visible to everyone in the neighborhood.  Grandma got quite a chuckle out of that.

 Later, when he retired, Grandpa took a job working at a funeral home in Lakewood named Daniel’s.  He had always been a people person and, of course, he knew many people in the area, and not just because of his school connections.  When Grandpa went out into the community in his black Buick Special, he would make sure to greet all the people who waited on him, including the people at the grocery store, Heinen’s, and the people who waited on him at the bakery, Hough’s.

My grandmother, on the other hand, only went out to church, to the beauty shop where she had her hair and nails done, and to Westgate, the local mall, where she went clothes shopping.  Her problem with her knees kept her from taking long walks around the neighborhood.  As she became older the problem became worse.  She also did not drive and my grandfather liked to do the grocery shopping, which deprived her of a motivation to get a license. However, I always had the best that Cleveland had to offer from the two main department stores, Halle’s and Higbee’s.  One Easter she sent two dresses, one green and one yellow.  I was supposed to pick one but ended up receiving both of them. 

When she was at home, she spent much of her time cleaning the house and talking to her best friend, Bonnie Flint, on the phone that was for some reason located in the dining room.  Bonnie’s husband, Roy, was also a principal.  They had one child.  The couples were lifelong friends but the relationship between the two women was the most important friendship, and the most significant part of that connection took place in a small corner of the family dining room.

Grandpa’s favorite entertainment was to go to the movies, a passion that I picked up on.  He delighted in taking us to the old movie theatres in downtown Cleveland, with their seats for the orchestra (no longer used then) in front, and their velvet curtains that were pulled back from the screen just before the movies would start.  The theatres with their red, plush decorations were owned by Lowes and were much more extravagant than the mall cinemas of today.  I saw Gone with the Wind in one of the theatres, which is pretty amazing the first time you see it.  However, my absolute favorite experience when we were alone with him was seeing two movies: The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (1963) and Romulus and Remus (1961) about the founding of Rome, plus fifteen cartoons, all in one sitting.  My grandfather went up in my estimation when some men from Indiana came to visit him in Lakewood and one of them was one of the Larrys from The Three Stooges (more than one person had filled that role.) (clip from My Three Stooges movie)  

Later we saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), my first adult movie, and one we all enjoyed, and Ryan’s Daughter (1970), which he did not enjoy because of the partial nudity.  The first one was a great film, and the second a good one, but the ambience was not the same because we saw them in mall cinemas in Lakewood.  As more years passed, there was more nudity and more of what he thought was vulgar language.  He was especially annoyed with the language in Love Story, which seems quite tame now. 

My favorite experience of going to a movie with both my grandparents was when we went to It’s a Mad, Mad World.  It’s a crazy ensemble road movie with Spencer Tracy as the only lead.  Grandma laughed and laughed.  That was the most fun I ever had as a child experiencing a movie along with someone else.

She died when I was in ninth grade, in the fall of 1967, from a blood clot after she had returned home from an operation.  Ironically, the operation was meant to correct some reproductive damage that had occurred during her first delivery.  It was not considered to be a major operation.  She was found in my uncle’s old bedroom upstairs.  We think she went there when the clot hit.  The burial took place on a cold, blustery day.  We stood under a tent as the minister pronounced his last words from Ecclesiastes.   Later visits to the Lakewood house never seemed quite the same.  She had a good-natured, sweet presence and she had spent more time in the house than my grandfather, so thereafter it felt like something was missing.

As I moved further into my teens, my grandfather and I didn’t get along as well, which is something I lived to regret later.  I argued with pretty much everything he said.  I started out as a tea drinker.  He insisted I would become a coffee drinker, which I resisted.  Nowadays I can’t start my day without going to Ithaca Bakery for a vanilla latte.  I went through a period of resisting Christianity.  He thought that didn’t make sense because I came from a Christian family.  When I was in college in Springfield, Ohio, he made a point of keeping up with Wittenberg University’s football scores.  I was not fond of my college and didn’t keep up with the scores, although I should have to enable myself to respond in a friendly way.

During my college years, my girlfriend Jeanne and I made plans to attend an Alice Cooper concert in Cleveland.  I asked him if we could stay at his house because I knew he planned to be away on vacation.  However, when he found out we were coming he changed his plans.  Following the concert, we went to the hotel where the band was staying for the after party.  Somehow we were split up: I ended up in the suite where Alice was holding court and Jeanne ended up in a hotel room with the group’s manager, desperately trying to get out.  Before I departed with a member of Alice’s security, I left a note at the front desk.  She somehow managed to get out of the manager’s clutches and took a taxi home.  My grandfather thought it was scandalous that we came home to Lakewood after 2 am, separately!  Of course, he told my mother and all hell broke loose.

The Second Set of Grandchildren

Cousin Frank Niven, Amy Clark holding Lauren, Uncle Chris Clark, and Cousin David Niven. My grandfather was able to hold Lauren.

My grandfather died in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial and the Tall Ships.  The nurses who helped him at the doctor’s office when he had heart trouble later in life came to his funeral at Daniel’s when he died.  He had treated Lakewood as though it were a small town like Francesville.  Our family was there, including Frank and David Niven, Chris and Amy’s two boys, and our two foster cousins. Lauren, Amy and Chris’s third child, was then under a year old. Even an old boyfriend of Mom’s, Bob Milner, showed up. Quite a number of people put cigars in his pocket when he was lying in state at the funeral parlor.

1256 Arlington Road

1256 turned out to be a better resting place for our memories than Lakewood Cemetery, although I do try to stop at the graveyard in Rocky River whenever I go through Ohio. Everyone from my immediate family has gone back to the house and been given a tour by the Yonkers. Several families lived there before we built up the courage to stop by. I’d have to check but I think the widow’s walk is gone. When I stopped for my visit, one of the old windows was still left–the one on the landing, from where I could see the pear tree and the garage. In my mind’s eye, I could hear Grandpa sweeping up the desiccated pears and complaining. I could see all the old license plates inside the garage and the blackberry bush in the backyard. Some of the pavers in the front yard have been replaced and there are no longer geraniums, but it’s the same old house.

P.S. One more Clark arrived in the Chris Clark family after Grandpa’s death. Gillian Sarah Clark popped out almost three years later in December of 1978. Her middle name, Sarah, is the name of our great-grandmother, Sarah Garrigues Clark.


17 Apr

I ended up reading this narrative for today’s writing group and decided to re-release it.

Harley 3

I dropped my first cat off at a field near a country road in the late seventies.  Shana (of the Jungle) was what she sounded like, a tough cat not particularly fond of humans or other cats.  Sometimes she would leap at me with her mouth open and I would duck just in time. She refused to use a litter box and she pulled up the carpeting in the hallways with her claws.  I was on the verge of being thrown out of my apartment, so one night my best Minneapolis friend at the time, Don,  arrived in his car and we headed to the Golden Valley Humane Society.  Shana climbed and clawed her way all around the car as he drove.  She managed to scratch me and draw blood.  Once there we were rejected because a vet was not present for the intake.  Don said, “I’m not going through…

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Luvelle Brown Escapes?

18 Jan

Luvelle Brown Escapes?

On January 13, I celebrated a late Christmas dinner and exchanged Christmas presents with my brother and my sister-in-law.  Along with the after-dinner ingestion of apricot bars and ginger snaps, we discussed the fact that Superintendent of the Ithaca Schools, Luvelle Brown, was resigning.  This is the biggest local news we have had for a long time, unless you count the recording of COVID cases, and, in our family at least, the lack of news,“Why hasn’t a ninety-four-year-old woman (my mother) received her vaccine yet?”  

My brother stated that Brown probably wanted to leave before the test scores went down, which they are bound to do, both because of online classes and some students’ lack of involvement therein.  He was acknowledging that Brown has had a very good record at the helm of the Ithaca schools.  But then my sister-in-law let the other shoe drop: Brown’s wife, whom he started divorcing in 2013, was angry and had filed a petition against him with the school system, both local and state.  

Although not a follower of the national news, she does have her hand on the beat of the pulse of local news.  She is like my mother used to be when she was head of the P.T.A. Council and later when she was working at Cornell and she knew all the scuttle-butt.

After dessert we retired to the family living room and all three of us took out our cell phones.  For about ten years now, this has become a way of shutting down the conversation and going inward, but we all headed to two of the articles in The Ithaca Voice, one published January 12 that extolls Luvelle Brown’s virtues as an administrator, including “Receiving the New York State School Boards Association Champions of Change for Kids Award-Aspiring Educators Award and Program” and “Having US News rank Ithaca High School in the top 2.5% of high schools in the nation (Gold Medal Distinction).”  The second article, published January 13, is entitled “Complaints, letter of allegations emerge in wake of ICSD Superintendent Brown’s resignation.” It entails the legal steps Brown’s ex-wife Anjanette Brown has taken, including a petition asking the local Board of Education for an investigation.  They failed to take up her petition, saying it was a family matter and she has since moved on to the State Department of Education and the Office of Human Rights.

A nugget that appears partway through the article says that one wrongdoing was hiring a woman as an administrative assistant with whom he allegedly became involved during that period.  Of course, if it’s true that makes it hard to determine whether she actually had some legitimate complaints against him, because obviously someone in her situation would be very bitter.  Luvelle Brown did not want his son to receive special attention because his father was superintendent, something to which she objected.  She ended up enrolling her children at Covenant Love, a small religious school in Dryden, which has the reputation of being a school with a warm embrace but wouldn’t necessarily be the place one would choose for specialized help.  Of course, it’s private and therefore out of her husband’s purview.

During our cell phone discussion we discussed his looks and my brother said he thought Brown had average looks. My sister-in-law and I looked at him mystified and both said he was very good-looking.  Men often have a strange way of evaluating the looks of other men.  I would actually say he is Brad Pitt level.  I ran into him fairly often over the years when I substituted because I had to get a special form from Human Resources and walked by his office, which was a modest one.  He was always friendly.  I last ran into him one year when I was selling raffle tickets during a snowstorm and he turned around and smiled.  After I thought, “Who is that good-looking man?” and then realized it was Brown.

For some reason, it feels relaxing to think about local news rather than the Capitol insurrection and COVID.  It’s as though ordinary life goes on despite all the mayhem and turmoil in our lives.  Brown says he has been planning on leaving for a while and that he has already been working with Discovery Education, his next employer when he finishes his job with the Ithaca schools at the end of February.  We may never know whether his ex-wife has legitimate “complaints” against his wielding of his power as a superintendent because of the way she intertwined her personal grievances in her letter.  As my brother says, Brown may merely be choosing to leave the Ithaca public schools at a high point rather than trying to get out of Dodge.

_Time at the Top_ and Edward Ormondroyd

3 Jan

Letter to the Editor in Ithaca Journal, October 10

While I loved reading David Wren’s interview of September 26 in Ulysses Town Talk with Joan and Edward Ormondroyd, I feel compelled to add more about his writing and how it is such an important part of children’s literature.  If Mr. Ormondroyd receives an obituary in the NY Times, it will be because of Time at the Top, David and the Phoenix, The Castaways on Long Ago, and his other books.  He is an extraordinary writer of fantasy who captivated my imagination as a boomer.  I’m not sure why he is not read as much today, but he deserves publicity.  I first took out Time at the Top when the Cornell Public Library was located next to the movie theater on Green Street and it remains my favorite children’s book.  I reread it several years ago and was delighted to find out  that he had written a sequel, All in Good Time.  I would go so far as to recommend Time at the Top to adults who would like to escape our current NYC with its Trumpian imprint for the two New Yorks Mr. Ormondroyd depicts, that of the early Sixties and the Victorian one that preceded it.

Thoughts on Time at the Top

When I was growing up, the Cornell Public Library was located on Green Street near the movie theater where I saw Babes in Toyland. The children’s literature section was in the front of the building and the adult section was in the back, which gave children’s literature prominence.  It was a small room, much smaller than the rooms allotted to children in the two succeeding libraries, but I was a child, so I was small too.  At the time, I was thinking about being a writer of children’s literature and the librarian told me that I should never write about animals because there were far too many books about them.  She was the one who directed me to Time at the Top and Edward Ormondroyd.  Because I kept taking the book out, I remember that it was a light yellow hardback (covers weren’t always kept back then) and I can see in my mind where it was located on a lower shelf on the right side of the room.  The librarian had superior taste–this was not the first good book to which she had directed me.  Edward Ormondroyd was prominent in the field at the time, so it wasn’t surprising that she picked him.

The book centers on a young teenager named Susan Shaw who lives with her widowed father in an old apartment building in NYC during the sixties.  The plot hinges on time travel, which many writers have used, but I wasn’t as familiar with it back then and I identified with Susan, who seemed like me except for her deceased mother.  I’ve tried to figure out why I find the story so compelling and I think it is her characterization.  She’s independent and assertive.  She also is able to escape her current-day existence in NYC for the same place in the Victorian Era, literally ending up in a field.  Who hasn’t wanted to escape her childhood?  I’ve never looked at elevators (an elevator is her means of escape) in quite the same way again.

When I went to read the book again several years ago, I went online and discovered that Edward Ormondroyd lived in Trumansburg.  I thought about calling him and asking to meet, but then I thought that someone who liked meeting strangers would have done more interviews over the years.  Once, when I was in the Trumansburg library to meet someone, I asked after Mr. Ormondroyd and was told his wife worked there, but that was as close as I came.  A friend looked the book up on Amazon and found that a copy of the original version was going for $800, so I think I have some company in my fascination with him.

A Long -Ago Chokehold in South Minneapolis

29 Dec

The death of George Floyd on May 25 aroused feelings of regret in me.  I now live in upstate New York, but for thirty years I was a resident of the Minneapolis metropolitan area, the last twenty of those years in South Minneapolis (1990-2009). The house was on 44th and Park, in between the restaurant where I worked and the University of Minnesota where I was a graduate student.  The neighborhood was about half black and half white and fairly safe.  When I walked my dog, Byron, at night, one of my neighbors would often stand outside until I returned home. We were fairly close to the Minnehaha Parkway where I took Byron.  In short, it was a perfect area for me to live. 

We did have some gang trouble but the police were aggressive about getting the gangs out of the neighborhood.   The block next to mine had numerous houses that flooded in heavy rains.  When the city decided to create a pond in that block, they demolished a majority of the houses, including some that didn’t have trouble with flooding but had or had had gangs attached to them and drug activity.  Since no one wants a drug house in their area, we were grateful to the police for removing the gangs.   

As a white woman, I am in a class that is generally respected by policemen.   I can chat with a cop if I am pulled over for speeding and it’s doubtful that I would ever be put in a chokehold.  Once, when driving on the 401 in Canada, I ended up at a sobriety checkpoint when I stopped for gas at what looked to be an open gas station.  The dial was close to empty and I was tired and pissed.  When I gave them my license, I complained  that I needed to find a gas station, and that “the Minnesota Supreme Court.had ruled that sobriety checkpoints were unconstitutional.”  I couldn’t find the receipt for my registration or my insurance papers but said sassily that all they had to do was “look at the plates.” In Minnesota, the tabs on the plates are part of the registration.   Once they checked on my licence and found that I was legit they let me go on my way.  Of course, a black man would never have challenged a cop like I did, and it’s questionable whether he would  be able to drive minus insurance papers and his registration without being arrested. 

Among my regular habits in the neighborhood were my every-other-day visits to the local Walgreens.   One beautiful day I started walking back across the parking lot when I noticed a white cop wrestling with a black man at the side of a police car with an open door on the driver’s side. Because of the door, the cop and his victim were not immediately  visible to me, so that once they came within view, it looked as though the cop were trying to disguise what he was doing.  I don’t remember if there was another cop, because I was so focussed on the tableau in front of me.  I had never witnessed a chokehold but realized that was what was occurring.  The policeman took his arm and stretched it across the suspect’s chest, wrapping it under his neck.  He then slowly and deliberately lowered the man to the ground so that he ended up on his back.    The cop was very focussed on the chokehold and didn’t seem to recognize that I was there.

I knew chokeholds were dangerous and I felt some responsibility to the black man, but was too scared to say anything.  I was very visible in that neighborhood because I walked it so often, and was afraid the policeman would recognize me and do me harm.  As I returned home, I struggled with reporting the incident.   I grappled all week with the decision about contacting his superiors. Then I let it go.

Last Monday when I saw the tape of a different kind of chokehold I went back in time to the event in Walgreen’s parking lot and felt regret for not calling it in.    If all of us were to be more vigilant, we could allow black men to drive and move more freely in society.  The cop I witnessed was not guilty of murder but I think he stepped over the line and I could have made a difference by reporting him.  You can make a difference, too.

Woody Allen

18 Jul

Woody Allen talks coronavirus lockdown, abuse controversy, marriage

Reflections on Woody Allen’s Autobiography

The last Woody Allen film I saw was Cafe Society with Kristen Stewart (2016), but the last one that impressed me was Midnight in Paris (2011).  Allen has always had a feel for city life and I loved the way he recreated all the literary folk who were in Paris in the 1920s: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, etc.  Although I’m not fond of Hemingway, who is one of Allen’s favorite writers, I taught Stein and Fitzgerald at UW-Stout in Menomonie, WI.  However, I’m afraid I might not be able to see any new films, because so many American actors have refused to work with him after his adopted daughter Dylan’s editorial appeared in the New York Times in 2014, alleging that he molested her.   For the record, the Sexual Abuse Clinic of Yale-New Haven Hospital came to the conclusion in March of 1993 that Allen did not molest Dylan, and the New York Department of Social Services had similar findings.   He went on to marry Soon-Yi,  Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter.  They have been married twenty some years and have two adopted daughters.

When I was growing up Woody Allen was part of the cultural Zeitgeist along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and his favorite filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman.  In my teens and twenties, he and Bergman came to be looked at as “our” intellectual filmmakers, although in his new autobiography he is at pains to explain that he is not an intellectual and that his glasses merely make him appear that way.  In talking about all of the movies he hasn’t seen, he says, “”I’m not disparaging these works; this is about my ignorance and why glasses do not make one a particularly literate person, much less an intellectual. . . . To this day I’ve never seen Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” (I’m a little slow.  I didn’t catch the fact that the previous sentence was a joke at first).  He also says that he is clever about the way he comments about writers, which gives the audience the impression that he is an intellectual when he is not.  He confesses that he was a terrible student, despite his high IQ, and prone to getting in trouble.  A fact that he says surprises most people is that he was a good athlete.  When he started dating, he realized that he was not making a good impression and started reading madly.  This solution to appealing to the opposite sex is similar to John Lennon’s admission that he became a musician to meet girls.  I think it is also an attempt at humility, never Allen’s strongest suit.

The main aspect of this book that should be emphasized is its humor.  I laughed harder than I have laughed in a long time.  When he was not discussing his problems with Mia Farrow, which was most of the time, almost every other sentence was a joke.  As he says, either you’re not funny or you are funny, and he is very funny, and, in fact, is probably more talented than most comedians.   One incident in particular stands out in my mind: “Where was I?  Oh yes, so a car in my hands was like giving an ICBM to a three-year-old.  I drove too fast.  I swerved and cornered where there was no corner.  I couldn’t backpark.  I spun out of control.  I had no patience in traffic  and wanted to exit the Plymouth and leave it in the middle of a jammed street.  I drove around endlessly trying to find parking spaces and then couldn’t squirm in.  I bashed in many a headlight and taillight of parked vehicles trying to fit between them and then pulled out and sped off in panic, leaving the scene of the  crime.”  And you get the idea.  Many of the jokes though are one-liners that occur every other sentence.

Much of the book is devoted to growing up in Brooklyn and dreaming about going to Manhattan and then traveling there when still a child.  Of his parents, he preferred his father, a jack of all trades, who liked to play cards and bet on the horses.  Something of a card sharp himself, he found that his talent came in handy when he entered the entertainment echelon.  The famous people he met played for fun but he played to win and made money off them.  He was schooled by New York City and its museums and plays.  His writing was good despite the fact that he didn’t think he had read enough books to be a good writer and he climbed the “comedy ladder” easily, first working as a comedy writer and then as a standup comic.  He was married twice, once to the aforementioned Harlene, who was a serious college student at Hunter when they were married, and another time to Louise Lasser, an actor and a manic-depressive who made his life fun but exhausting, once insisting on having sex right outside a restaurant when they were waiting for their appetizers.   

Sometimes he swerves off into an explanation of his life with Mia Farrow.  Unfortunately, her skills as a parent are sub-par, which adds a tragic element to his autobiography.  Most of the occurrences I had read about in other sources, but together they are scary.  Two of her children, Thaddeus and Tam, committed suicide and a third tried.  Her daughter, Lark, did much of the housework.  Woody’s sister once visited the house in Connecticut and mistook Lark for a servant.  Allen says of Lark that she later died alone in a hospital of HIV on Christmas.  

According to Soon-Yi, his now wife and Moses, his adopted son, Mia preferred her blonde, blue-eyed children to her adopted Asian children (Farrow also adopted children of color from other countries), but liked to show the adopted children off, especially the ones that were disabled.  Just as she coached Dylan to make up a story about Allen molesting her, a fact that the New Haven experts picked up on, she also coached Moses to make up things that weren’t true, as she did on an occasion when she found a tape measure on his bed,  accused him of stealing it, and coached him to say he did.  When she was coaching Dylan, she once filmed her in the nude when asking her questions and prompting her.  As the reader, I found myself wishing that he’d gotten more involved with her family, so that he would have had some idea of what was going on, but they lived separately and it was his two adopted children, Moses and Dylan, and his biological child, Satchel/Ronan, who he came to know the best.  According to his account, Mia liked to keep Satchel/Ronan at her side, so he knew him less well than his two adopted children.

I wrote this review because I think the book is a good one and deserves serious consideration for reading this summer.  Dylan may have been molested.  One doesn’t know, but another possibility is that Mia Farrow was enraged over Woody Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi, and decided to get back at him.  I have to admit that I was driving cross-country years ago when the scandal came out and was startled when I entered a convenience store and saw Woody Allen and Soon-Yi, then Previn (Mia Farrow was married to Andre Previn when they adopted her), on the cover of People.   I thought to myself, “Oh, yuck!” But their relationship has improbably worked out.   The Psychology Department at Cornell University did a large study showing that children could be convinced of things that weren’t true.  In the 1997 study of preschool children it was found that: “These findings have important implications for cases involving young children, including those related to child abuse and sexual child abuse because in some of these trials children are interviewed many times over the course of weeks, months, or even years.  In fact, the average child in the courtroom is interviewed formally 3.5 to 11 times before a court appearance and many more times informally.”  A child of a family friend who participated in the study was convinced that there was a monster living in his basement.  Unfortunately, parents in child custody cases often don’t tell the truth. In this particular situation, Allen’s perspective has not been aired as completely as Farrow’s.   Anyway,  this book is a fascinating read and worth your time.  His life has definitely been interesting, whatever your personal view of him, and his importance as a filmmaker is unquestioned.


Death (After the Funeral) and Random Thoughts on the COVID Era

13 Jun

Grim Reaper

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.  It’s pretty hard to avoid such thoughts when we get a new COVID count every day on the nightly news.  If I didn’t have the news, I would have my mother.  Last week she brought up our old argument about the cemetery on  Pleasant Grove Road.  She wants me to be buried there.  I want to be buried in Canada on the land where our cottage is located because that’s where I’ve always been happiest.

The conversation went as follows:

“I hope you’ve decided to be buried next to me and your father.”

My father takes up one plot but there are five spaces left.

“Mom, I don’t plan to die of COVID.  I will most probably die after you.”

“Well, it would be silly to be buried in Canada when we have so much space here.”

Yesterday we got into a discussion of how much I paid to remodel two of my bathrooms. I still don’t know because I haven’t allowed myself to tally up the various bills.

“The fact that they’re your brother’s friends meant that they would do it.  Not that they would charge you any less.  Next time get an estimate.”

“Mom, they don’t do it that way.”

She worries that I will make bad decisions about finances when she is gone.

. . .

The next day we continue the conversation.

“You know my father’s insurance policy will only cover $3,000 of my funeral expenses.  You have to take that into account.”  Insurance policies have been used for years to cover funerals.

She is feeling pressure because she is the accountant of the family now that my father is gone, especially of our Canadian property,  and at ninety-four is closer to death than the rest of us.  She also doesn’t have all of her nutrition material sorted and packed away in the Cornell Library yet.  Members of the faculty are allowed to keep their files in the library in perpetuity. Understandably, she is worried about finishing her sorting and the COVID specter doesn’t help.  She isn’t able to see us, except through the window at Kendal at arranged times.

I feel guilty when I worry about her and my own situation because I know we are better off in terms of our COVID exposure than many people.  She lives in the assisted living section of the retirement complex, which has always been pretty strict, and offers more amenities than many such homes.  I am retired and Gov. Cuomo made most of the college students (about 25, 000) leave Ithaca, so half our population is gone.  I will outlive Trump.

Last night Rachel Maddow reported that Doctors Without Borders had arranged with the Navajo Nation to come into their half of New Mexico.  I checked and apparently, they have been there since April.  In the richest country in the world, we are unable to take care of our own people.   Native Americans always come last.  Healthcare in this day and age remains unequal.

But I also feel unnerved in a personal sense because Gallup, New Mexico (main city in Navaho country) has become one of the country’s hot spots and my niece Meghan is a new R.N. at a hospital in Santa Fe.  Her hospital and other hospitals that are relatively close are starting to pick up the overflow from Gallup.  I’m sure she would recover if she came down with the coronavirus but it’s still scary to think about a new nurse taking care of COVID patients.  To date she has not had to take on this responsibility.  They are using older, more experienced nurses on the COVID floor.

We are still better off than the people who came before us.  My periods in British Lit were Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century.  One in four people in eighteenth-century England died of T.B., while one in seven people in nineteenth-century England died of T.B.   In the intellectual sense, I know that they suffered much more than we have but I still feel death encroaching more and more on our lives.












Jasmine Kapiolani Lefebvre

22 Mar

Kathy and Denise--Funeral

Jasmine Kapiolani  Lefebvre succumbed to a combination of  fentanyl/meth. on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Cincinnati, Ohio.  She was thirty-three years old, half my age. Her mother, Denise, my best friend from our days teaching English at UW-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin, sent me a message the next day, saying that something she’d always feared had happened: “Hi Kathy I have some terrible news about [j]azzy. I got the phone call that I’ve been dreading for years.”   I then picked up the phone and called her in Hawaii, but at first I couldn’t talk and started crying, not a great example of how you’re supposed to behave, because it’s supposed to be about the survivors, not you. My shocked reaction was partly about the great sadness of a person dying so young, but also one of fear for her parents concerning how they would make it out of such a tragedy.  Denise started asking me about obituaries and certain other decisions she was making; I told her she should consider having one in each of two papers. The fact that Denise asked my advice worried me because she is very much a take charge person, a Kamala Harris type, which I think is a good thing. She typically only asks my advice on books to read. She was hesitant about making decisions, which made me aware of her vulnerability.

Jasmine came from what is often thought of as a “good” family: morally upright, hardworking, and capable of providing all the creature comforts a child needs.  Denise and Richard met at the University of Hawaii at Hola, and Denise may have been thinking she would stay there, but once they started having children they deemed it urgent to move to Richard’s hometown, Chippewa Falls,Wisconsin, which was less expensive.  Both of them were close to their extended families and both of their fathers were highly visible in their respective communities. Richard’s father was a lawyer who helped to spearhead George McGovern’s campaign in Wisconsin, while Denise’s father was a financier in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Both Richard and Denise came from large, loving Catholic families, Richard’s Irish Catholic, and Denise’s Hawaiian. They skipped Catholicism but incorporated everything else. Richard was the “money” partner, who sold cars for a living, while Denise was at first a homemaker raising three girls and intermittently working outside the home, and then a full-time college English teacher.  It would seem Jasmine had all the advantages. Denise encouraged her daughters to get involved in sports and band, and worked to support their activities by making pasta dishes for their banquets. Jasmine was a swimmer, a sport Denise thought Jasmine could use all her life. Her daughter later blamed Denise for not encouraging her to go into gymnastics, a sport she might have been better at than swimming because she was so short.  Denise and Richard were heavily involved in Democratic politics. Jasmine had all the privileges one experiences growing up in a family who put their children first and are active in their communities. Neither parent was an addict.

When Denise first told me about her daughter’s foray into the world of drugs, she emphasized how much pleasure she and her husband had received from the time they had spent with Jasmine growing up.  Jasmine was intellectually curious and very responsive to her surroundings, sometimes amusingly so. It was as though Denise couldn’t believe how this child who had been so happy had careened off course.  Denise related these experiences to me at the time I came into the Haughian family’s life. Jasmine was a junior in high school then and her life was starting to fall apart. Always a very good student, her grades had fallen off, she was missing curfew, she was using drugs, and she was getting suspended from school.  Her parents put her in rehab and a psychiatrist diagnosed her as manic depressive, a label she fought. Denise said it was hard to know if the diagnosis was accurate, because as far as she knew Jasmine was never in a psychiatrist’s care again.

She barely made it through high school, but did make a positive move right afterward.  Richard’s sister, Sue, owned a horse farm in Kentucky and she invited Jasmine to come work for her.  She even bought her a horse. Jasmine initially thrived in that environment and Denise and Richard were hopeful.  Denise had read that exercise was often helpful with mental illness and she thought the job might prove to be the answer.

  I can’t remember if there was a falling out with her aunt, but Jasmine moved on to Cincinnati, which is right across the border from Kentucky.  Initially, things went well and Jasmine made friends. But a couple years in, the Haughians received a phone call. At the time Denise was spending two nights a week on my sofa bed and attending grad school in the English doctoral program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.  Jasmine’s life had begun to spin out of control again. She had become involved with a group of guys in Cincinnati who were tied into a drug deal in Texas and had driven them down South in her parents’ car. Denise and her youngest daughter, Rosy, came to the rescue, flying down to Texas and cutting a deal with the prosecutor to get Jasmine released from jail.  Denise agreed to let the prosecutor take the car and laptop, both of which belonged to her and her husband. Jasmine got off scot-free, but her parents lost two of their possessions. Not much of a lesson there. But Denise quit the doctoral program. I never bothered to ask her about it. I just figured she wanted to focus on her daughter.

But then help came from a different quarter.  Denise’s parents agreed to put Jasmine through beauty school in Hawaii.  Her work at the school went well, but she was consistently rude to her grandmother and her grandfather put her on a plane back to the mainland about a month before she was due to graduate.  Maybe a mistake on his part. Who knows?

Over the years Denise and Richard kept in touch with Jasmine, always making sure her cell phone was paid, but they knew less and less about her life.  Several years ago, they went on a trip around the U.S. and stopped to visit her in Cincinnati. She refused to tell them where she was living and always met them in public places, often an hour late.  They knew that she had been married once to a Russian man, who used her to get his papers and then had the marriage annulled. Denise said that as far as she knew her daughter never went homeless, because she was usually living with some guy, which was a salvation of sorts because she always had a roof over her head and food, although some of the guys were pretty pitiful.

They were driving in a car when the cops reached Denise and Richard to notify them of her death.  Richard immediately broke down. Denise was stunned. She had recently contacted her when she heard Jasmine was getting out of jail, and texted NO DRUGS.  She had also sent her pictures of the family and her two nieces. 

Calls back and forth between Hawaii and Cincinnati followed.  Her parents found out that she had been married a second time for five years to a man named Lefebre, but then had divorced him when she fell for someone else.  She had never bothered to tell them. Even though she broke off the relationship, the ex-husband found a place for her to live with a friend of his. Recently, Lefebre reported Jasmine to the police, probably to help her, and she ended up in jail as a result.  Since she had also violated probation, she was in jail for some time, during which she detoxed. Her aunt came to visit and drop off money so she could buy supplies, and felt somewhat hopeful about a possible recovery.

 When Jasmine’s roommate came to the funeral, he put a finer point on the activities that had taken place the week before. She first was released from jail and called him to come get her. Soon after she returned home, she asked if she could borrow his car.  He said she could “for two minutes.” She totaled the car and then OD’d. When she arrived at the hospital, she received Naloxone to bring her back, which was successful. It’s very dangerous to go back on a drug such as fentanyl  at the level to which you were accustomed when you were a user. At this point, there are many unknown details, including exactly what drugs besides heroin might have been in her body.  No one knows what she was thinking at the time.

.                                . .                           . .         

I started my car trip to Cincinnati late because a control arm bushing over my right wheel had to be replaced, which I took as a bad omen.   From the beginning, I was nervous about making the funeral on time, but I also thought I was lucky because of the bare roads. Around Buffalo there was snow but it didn’t accumulate and I relaxed some.  I kept thinking that I’d been longing to see Denise, but this was such a terrible way for it to happen. For some dumb reason I took the advice of a woman at a toll booth as to how to get to Cincinnati faster and went off Interstate 90, but relatively soon I stopped at a gas station and was told to drive back to 90.  It was dark then and I didn’t feel the excitement I usually do when I’m in the neighborhood of Cleveland. Tired and cold, I got off the highway and stopped at a hotel, having no idea where I was.

In the morning I returned to the highway, but took the belt, 271, around Cleveland.  I felt like I was in a no man’s land. There was to be no Lake Erie or Terminal Tower on this trip; all the little signs that I was coming to my grandparents’ suburb, Lakewood, were missing. Ohio is an attractive state, although it is definitely not one of the most beautiful. However,  as I drove down 71 to Cincinnati, I noticed how barren the farmland looked with its deadly yellow grass and lack of people. When I reached the outer belt of Columbus, I saw a sign for Worthington, where my aunt and uncle had lived. That was the one spark I felt during the second half of my trip.  In driving from Columbus to Cincinnati, I remember thinking that this had to be one of the ugliest stretches of highway I had ever been on. Only when I crossed the bridge into Kentucky did the scenery start to look better. That was probably due to the river.

I arrived at our Hilton Hotel around 3 at the beginning of the calling hours and finally relaxed.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to find my GPS in the tangle that is the interior of my car, so I stuck my head out the door and asked the maid for help in getting to the Serenity Funeral Care Parlor.  She pulled out her cell phone and gave me the directions. After thanking her, I stopped to ask how to get on the Interstate and a stranger figured it out for me. The funeral parlor was only a few intersections away.  The fact that everywhere I went in Kentucky was right next to the Interstate made me feel that I could be anywhere. 

When I stepped inside, I was easily able to identify where the family was.  All four of them wore white leis they had brought from Hawaii. Jasmine had loved flowers.  Richard’s had a green bow on it that I figured had been added by one of his daughters, probably Rosy, to connote his Irishness.  The entire time I was at the funeral home he looked stricken. The oldest daughter, Jade, was right near the door, but I started to talk to her as though she were Rosy.  One of my many social faux pas! It turned out she had lost so much weight that she resembled Rosy from the side. The youngest daughter, Rosy, was my student at Stout and she’s definitely the one I know the best.  Every so often, she would start crying, catch herself, and then go hug her father. Denise seemed to be handling herself well; she is always good at chit-chatting. But when I started to talk to her I found out that she had had to buy her outfit in the area.  She told me “I just threw something together. We had to go out shopping because I didn’t have anything to wear with me.” This was very unlike Denise, who was always very aware of how she dressed when we worked together at Stout. College teachers are pretty casual nowadays, but Denise was always careful about her earrings and often wore a black top in the latest style.  She looked good that day but slightly frazzled.

As I walked around the room looking at all the pictures mounted on felt boards, I realized that this girl was cherished and had had a happy home life.  One picture showed her standing outside with her flute, perhaps preparing for a parade. Another showed her on a surfboard in Hawaii. Still another showed her being cuddled by her mother, who was sitting on the front stoop of a house looking blissful.  In sharp contrast to these pictures was a set of pictures taken by the ex-husband. These were of a girl who stood in sexy, somewhat aggressive poses with a lot of makeup. She looked attractive but defiant, a girl who maybe wanted to be a model, or maybe just wanted to look appealing to her husband.  This was the grown-up Jasmine, who was not as well-represented in the other pictures, but must have still retained some of the childhood fancifulness that was so obvious in them. The husband didn’t come to the funeral, saying he had to work. Perhaps he didn’t feel like facing the parents, even though he had responded to their questions over the phone.  He said that he had sometimes wished that he could support her with his social security checks in later life, but that was not to be.

The people who were there had flown or driven into the heartland from many parts of the country.  There were people there from Florida, California, Wisconsin, and Hawaii. For all of us Cincinnati and Covington, Kentucky were about Jasmine.  We all went around introducing ourselves to one another. One woman who was there from Wisconsin with her female partner and their baby. She said she was a general surgeon.  Denise’s brother complimented them on having a baby together, but I wanted to know if she had been a classmate of Jasmine’s (It turned out they were sisters. I have no idea how I got so far off.  Denise wanted me to keep my first reaction in). Had they competed against one another in class? Did they swim together? In the flow of conversation that followed, I never was able to get my questions in, but the fact that the woman was a surgeon made me wonder what Jasmine might have been.  I wasted my twenties in many ways; it’s a problem for many of us–those gaps of time when we might have been doing something or going somewhere else. Maybe Jasmine should have stayed on the farm and become a horsewoman like her Aunt Sue. One never knows. Part of what filled up the time in her case was the drugs and that is where the sadness comes from.

The funeral itself was short but poignant.  Jasmine’s Aunt Sue, the horsewoman of the Irish part of the family, spoke first.  She said that this was the first tragedy their family had experienced. The Jasmine she talked about was sweetness itself, still capable of being kind to Sue’s granddaughter.  I think we often see addicts as having had personality transplants, but the essential person is still there, just not always capable of holding a job or maintaining healthy relationships for any length of time.  Sue also read Grandfather Wong’s piece. He is older and not capable of traveling the way he used to. There was no reference to Jasmine’s problems with him but instead a lovely reminiscence about her as a light of his life.  The funniest aspect of Jade’s talk was a reference to the time in her life when Jasmine changed her name to “Strawberry” and would only answer to that. The minister who had been hired by the director of the funeral parlor spoke next.  His hiring gave Denise one of her few laughs. She had asked for someone who was not a Bible thumper and the director’s response was “This is Kentucky. You’re not going to find a secular humanist here.” We academics sometimes forget how well-educated people can be outside our profession.  I thought he did a good job, but Denise thought he might have picked more comforting passages of the Bible.

For the reception after the service we went to the Chinese Wok where we were served prime rib, courtesy of Denise’s brother Gary.  Chinese Americans are often critical of restaurants that don’t serve “the real thing,”  although there were some Chinese dishes served and the Chinese owner, who apparently was from Taiwan, did come and talk to us.  Richard put his lei around my neck and I wore it for the rest of the night. He finally relaxed after a couple drinks, as did most of the people in the party.  Rosy and Denise told a story about a jury Rosy recently served on that was quite funny. I’ve observed the same kind of thing in my family. After a funeral, everyone looks for a quick release that they know will be evanescent.

    The next morning after breakfast I hugged them both goodbye–their grief was overpowering.  Richard held me as though he did not want to let me go. They say that losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to someone.  Going by their experience I would say this is true.


3 Feb



Kathy, Meghan, Ruth

Me, Meghan, and Ruth, her other grandmother, one Easter in a Georgetown pizza house

I’m feeling maudlin today.  My fourth niece Meghan left this morning with plastic bags full of clothes, everyday china of my grandmother’s (not the fine china), some of the family sterling, and her German Short Hair Dog, Rosie.  Meghan is fairly casual like most of her generation.  They don’t anticipate fancy dinner parties nor feel the need for matching luggage.  She is driving to Sante Fe, where she will live temporarily with her sister, Rebecca, and start a job as a nurse in the geriatric section of the hospital there.  It is difficult for me to take in.

I love my four nieces equally, but I am having an especially hard time with this one leaving.  During the last ten years since I have been back from Minneapolis, she has been the niece around Ithaca the most often. Meghan is also the only one to have missed only one yearly trip to our family cottage in Canada.  We packed in four movies and a number of family meals this month, the last one at Antler’s, where she insisted on ordering a hamburger and her new favorite drink, the Blue Elephant, a vodka drink with pineapple juice, blue curacao, and lemon juice.  I was aware during this visit that connecting with her was important.

During dinner, I informed her that scientists are already worried about New Mexico in view of climate change and the high temperatures recorded there.  However, my brother said scientists were worried about the southern part of the state, not Sante Fe, where Meghan would be living.  I responded that in not so many years, the south would become warm and Meghan would have to live in Nebraska or Wyoming, where the United States might still have space for her.  “But I  don’t want to live in Nebraska,” she exclaimed  She is fun to tease but there is a possible hazard there.

One of the biggest disappointments of my life is the fact that I didn’t have children, so my nieces are as close as I will get.  My nieces recognize that and send me flowers every Mother’s Day, a day I find especially difficult.  I realize that I haven’t had to deal with all the difficulties of my brother and sister-in-law’s parenting including paying for Pratt Institute, an expensive art college in Brooklyn, dealing with projectile vomiting (won’t identify that niece), arguing with a plastic surgeon who hurt Meghan when she was sewing her up, and rushing to Urgent Care when my nieces and some friends ate mushrooms that were growing around the pool at the Ithaca Swim Club.  I think I could deal with all of those things, but it’s hard to prove.

I see parts of myself in all my nieces.  All of them are readers.  Rebecca and Meghan are especially interested in crime fiction like me.  Gwynne and I both have our doctorates in English and she’s the one I’m most often compared to lookswise.   Anna has also been compared to me as far as looks are concerned.  All of them have wanted to travel just as I did at their age around the U.S.  But they have all traveled more in Europe than I have.  I had been to Scotland once at their age.  As far as wanderlust is concerned, it struck me a little earlier than it did them.  I had moved to Minneapolis by age twenty-four and didn’t move back for thirty years, so I can hardly criticize Meghan for wanting to move.






Memories of Tom

13 Jan



Memories of Tom


Searching back through my emails for a picture of Tom’s cat Spectacles, I found traces of Tom’s and my history.  It’s hard to ever know what goes on in a relationship between two people, even when you’re one of the two people.  I ran across a string of emails from 2008 where Tom was checking my property every night when I was in Wisconsin. I had a tenant, Jenna, who was responsible, but Tom just wanted to make sure that the sidewalks were clean and check up on the deer.  I had been taken up with the fad of plastic deer that were strung with Christmas lights and Tom had gotten into the habit of restringing them when the lights went out. He noted ruefully that some of the lights were starting to fade. But he had restrung one deer with bright pink lights and it really stood out.

Walker was full of unique people like Tom and me, who I would say were, in our own way, eccentric.  That’s a word that single people can use about themselves but people with partners can’t. The church had an unusual number of p.k.s (preachers’ kids) and ex-Catholics.  Preachers’ kids often have too much emphasis placed on their spiritual behavior and feel they have to figure things out for themselves. There were several Buddhists and a Jewish man named Fred who had an erudite comment after every sermon. These comments were actually part of the service.  He later became a friend. Tom and I were unusual in that we shared with the succession of ministers what most of the congregation did not–we were both actually Methodists. The services were also eclectic and included the Bible, which the ministers did base their sermons on, but also incorporated the Native American song “I Walk in Beauty” and Lao Tsu.  The first minister, Roger Lynn, had a surprising penchant for the Book of Daniel, unusual for a Protestant minister. In 1971, he became the first minister in the country to marry a gay male couple. 

I didn’t get to know Tom well at the beginning, because he was shy, almost diffident.  I am like that myself in certain situations and I often do better with people who bring me out of myself, so our friendship took a couple years to really take off.  Tom was my age, another thing that was different for me; because I started graduate school so late in life, I was often with younger people. He was blonde and stockily built, although well-proportioned and good-looking in his own way.  When he spoke his conversation was halting, but his grammar was good and he was clearly intelligent. For some reason, he was hesitant and I couldn’t figure out why. It would be a mistake to think of him as self-effacing though. He was merely quiet and spoke when he had something to say. Roger told me his story after I had been a member for a couple years.  Tom had come to the University of Minnesota to acquire his doctorate in astronomy. Either because his program was set up that way or because he made the decision on his own, Tom skipped over his M.S., which would turn out to be a regrettable error when he quit the program, because of his ever-increasing alcoholism. When he quit, he was far past the requirements for an M.S.  Needing to make money, he turned to work as a garbage man, which paid a decent salary, but was much less than an assistant professor would have made. His father, who worked for Dupont in Delaware, came out to rescue his son and get him back in the program, but it didn’t work. I never asked him much about the situation, figuring it was probably a sensitive subject. He did bring up his mother’s early death numerous times, which I  thought was the worst thing that had ever happened to him, but he rarely brought up astronomy, which says that maybe I was wrong about the worst thing. However, his prize possession was a telescope his father had given him. When Mars made its appearance in 2003 and everyone was talking about the fact that it hadn’t been this close in 60, 000 years, he set the telescope up at the church and we all came over and looked through it.

I started attending Walker when Tom had been sober for ten years, which was quite an accomplishment, but he was middle-aged and the job was taking a lot out of him.  Lifting garbage cans is not for sissies. He went to the gym every day, partly to enable himself to make it through a workday, but I think he also was very conscious of all the damage he had done to his body with the alcohol.  He obssesively ate dark chocolate and anything else he ran across that sounded the least bit healthy, including cherry juice that my mother found out was being produced at the Geneva Experiment Station in New York, an outreach program of Cornell..  He even had it sent to him by the case.

Our friendship really started when Roger Lynn turned to us on his second-to-last Sunday as a pastor and suggested that we start planning a hospitality hour after church and making sure that we served good coffee. Minnesotans are particular about their coffee and, as far as I know, Tom always made the good stuff. He also bought the church a new coffee maker.  Initially, we paid for everything with Jerry, our one member with Native American blood, slipping us a $20 now and again. Then Jennifer, the administrator of Walker, started asking people to sign up.  We did continue to pay for quite a bit of what was served, however. I was initially concerned about bringing desserts, since this was a mostly granola crowd, but I found they ate as much sugar as the next person.  I don’t think Seth, the new minister, was initially happy about Roger’s last-minute decision, but he slowly became used to us. Putting together a hospitality session was definitely a whimsical way for a relationship to start.

Tom needed some kind of intellectual outlet, which led to him rehabbing computers, wiping them clean, and adding games on them for children.  They became his contribution to the church rummage sale–it was a cheap way for parents to give their children computer access. At the time software development was moving more slowly than it is now and it was easier to put new programs on older models.

I bought my first computer with my retirement money from waitressing at Byerly’s ($1, 600).  Tom and my friend, Brian, from my screenwriting group, helped to set it up. One weekend a guy came to my side door, asking me for money, but I didn’t have any to give him. Unfortunately, he noticed that the door was loose and wouldn’t shut properly, which didn’t register with me at the time.  Some days later the computer was stolen,. I found small pieces of disks scattered across the neighborhood. Tom’s solution was to take a computer of Brian’s, fix it, and buy me new software. “Voilà–I had a new computer!    A year and a half ago when I visited him, he had a stack of laptops that came up to the arm of the chair I was sitting in.  The rehabbing bug had never left him.

At one point Tom decided I needed a bike.  He obtained one on his route as a garbage man and rehabbed it, just like he had with the computers.  It even had a bell and a light. Because I was used to running and walking for exercise, I probably didn’t take biking seriously enough and used the local Dairy Queen for my reward, thereby cancelling out the benefit with the calories.  But I continued using it. One day I left the bike in the backyard, a no-no in South Minneapolis, and it was stolen. It was very dangerous to leave your garage door open or anything else valuable near the alley, because the alleys were the hunting ground for thieves,  If a thief didn’t have a ride, he or she would grab a bike, ride it to their destination, and toss it. We looked around for the bike but had no luck. Indefatigable, Tom rehabbed another bike. It’s sitting in my garage, waiting for someone like Tom to put its various pieces together again.

Tom and I bonded over the love we felt for our cats.  Tom, who had had a succession of cats, had a favorite named Spectacles, a tortoiseshell who had white circles around her eyes.  My favorite cat was named Terry and his name became part of my email address.  

When I moved to New York in 2008, Tom started sending emails that featured Spectacles.   He reported on July 4 of 2008 that he had read Animal Pharm (read spelling out loud) and from that he had deduced certain things about Spectacles: “She probably had a tough childhood with very sporadic feedings.  When I first got her and gave her food she gulped it down as fast as possible. When she was young she would groom herself so much that her hindquarters were bare.  She does seem to have panic attacks, although she doesn’t really have separation anxiety.” In August he mentioned that Spectacles [was] on a stakeout. It helps prevent kitty boredom.”  In October, he started to become concerned: “Yesterday Spectacles was a recluse when I got home which made me a little worried. . . . I had to make some noise to get her to come out of hiding.”  Tom was like me in that Spectacles was a very big part of his life, just as Terry had been in mine. During the last part of my time in Minneapolis, when Terry had passed on, I had two cats: Caspar, who is still alive and living with me in New York, and Harley, who is not, so we still had cat stories to share.

On Sunday, October 30, 2011, Tom sent an email.  When Spectacles died it was very difficult for Tom and he wrote about it to me.  His memorial for Spectacles: “My cat, Spectacles, about 18, passed away Monday after a short illness.  I kept her comfortable and she died at home naturally. We had a pretty good last week together, considering.  I cremated her on a funeral pyre in the backyard Wednesday evening. It was the hottest fire I ever built, of wood and charcoal. There was very little smoke. I probably won’t get another cat for a while.  The house needs cleaning first.” 

  He was healthy when I was still living there, but five years ago he was diagnosed with colon cancer.  He was in such pain that he walked to the University of Minnesota, which has the closest hospital to where he lived in Minneapolis.  Someone who was driving the same way he was walking saw he was bleeding and took him to the emergency room. Recently, the cancer moved to his spine. Before he went to hospice, he walked to Target to get some cat food for Mister Cat.  His cats were always his priority and he had always forced himself when it came to physical exertion.

What I have told you about Tom can be summed up in William Wordsworth’s phrasing as“The best portion of a good man’s life: his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love.”  I could have listed more things that Tom did for me but I thought the piece was getting a bit long. I have chosen to have Eded read my eulogy because Eded was Tom’s person and I know Tom would enjoy having him read it.