Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Songs Our Mothers Sang to Us: Isoko and Betty

Yoko & Isoko Ono; Ellen & Betty O'Neill


Revisiting this post from five years ago, when I stumbled upon Yoko Ono's Desert Island Disc, recorded Friday, June 15, 2007, when she was 73 years old. 

Stumbling onto Yoko's story brought me an unexpected connection to the whole beautiful, shared notion of mothers & daughters, a choral connection across cultures and decades. Amazing.

It was for her selection of the song "When I Grow to Too Old Dream." Here is the story she tells of why she chose it.  Her distinctive, slight voice somehow made the story even more poignant and resonant:


Yoko:  "This is a very personal memory for me.

One day I just felt I wanted to call my mother.

The way she said "Oh Yoko" I thought there was something strange.

And then she said "I just fell in the kitchen," or something like that.

And I thought, this is serious and I thought I had to do something, but I was in New York and she was in Japan.

So I said, "Ok Mommy, let's sing that song, remember that song you used to sing."

and I started "When I grow too old to dream."

[And my mother started to sing back very weak and very haltingly.]


Ok. Let's start again, "When I grow too old to dream. . ." 

I kept repeating it and repeating it and she finally sang the whole line.

I was so choked up. And my assistant called to Tokyo, to the hospital and got the ambulance to go to my mother, and she was saved."

And that is how Yoko Ono kept her mother calm and alert while her assistant telephoned Japan and got her mother help.


"When I Grow Too Old to Dream" is a song with music by Sigmund Romberg and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, published in 1934. (Yoko Ono was born in 1933). It is one of those extremely special tunes, like Amazing Grace and Danny Boy, that strikes a chord deep within many, many people.

The terrible scenario of an elderly loved one who has fallen is one that every family has known.  Keeping her mother calm and alert was absolutely the thing to do, very quick thinking on Yoko's part. And of ALL the songs in ALL the world she could use, what pops into her head in that desperate moment is a song in English that her mother sang to her as a child.  Isoko of course  also sang songs to Yoko in Japanese, but "When I Grow" has a tune that can connect soul to soul very deeply. Perhaps that is why it popped into her head in that stressful moment.

I hadn't thought of the song in years, but my mother, who was born the same year as Yoko, sang it to me too when I was a child. 

What makes my mom's rendition so special is that she cannot "carry a tune."  My mother can hear distinctive notes in a song, and can recognize songs, but she struggles to re-create differing pitches of any kind. Her notes often come out as a monotone. And yet, her love of songs and desire to share was so strong that I did hear "tunes" come through that monotone. And this song in particular, which I have known practically since birth.

When I grow too old to dream
I'll have you to remember
When I grow too old to dream
Your love will live in my heart
So, kiss me my sweet
And so let us part
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart


The song was used in the 1935 film The Night Is Young, starring Ramon Navarro and sung by English light opera actress Evelyn Layne.

Leonard Maltin is not fan of the film: "Novarro, wretchedly miscast and mugging mercilessly, brings his 10-year MGM career to a pitiful end playing a Viennese archduke who spurns his royal fiancee for a fling with ballerina Laye. Oscar Hammerstein/Sigmund Romberg score, including "When I Grow Too Old to Dream,'' is an insufficient saving grace."

Gracie Fields and Nelson Edy had early hits with it, followed by Nat King Cole and Doris Day. Yoko used the Gracie version for her Desert Island Disc. That is not my favorite, because it's too operatic for such a gentle tune (although it does have the nice intro verse).  Here is Linda Ronstadt in a lovely duet with Kermit & Muppet chorus, also with the intro verse.




Sunday, May 3, 2020

Sexy Beast, I Mean Bing: Happy Birthday!




Bing Crosby’s birthday is today, May 2, as he cites in his autobiography Call Me Lucky: "Uncle George kept my father company, diverted him with his best stories and raised a comforting glass with him when I was born on May 2, 1904."

OR it's tomorrow May 3, the date all the biographies site for him, including the Gary Giddens. And those bios cite 1903 as his birth year, not 1904. Turns out Bing celebrated May 2 because of a complicated family thing & then Paramount used that in their materials, but he was born on May 3. Unfortunately, this confusion about the simplest of a man’s details is the least of the problems with his legacy.

Like the Olympian gods, Bing Crosby is largely forgotten and unloved today, except for the descendents of some loyal fans. Gary Giddins made a valiant attempt to focus attention on this Mozart of the popular song with his very ample 2001 biography Pocketful of Dream. And for a brief moment, pop culture glanced at “the first white hip guy born in America” (as Artie Shaw called him). But the attention has not been sustained. And yet . . . when people discover his work in the 1930s, new fans are born.



In the beginning, Crosby was sexy and compelling. He had a distinct, astonishing voice and a way of singing that was unlike any other on the landscape.

He was a genuine heartthrob, best seen in a movie that is almost impossible to get now, the original Big Broadcast (1931, but before they started assigning years to them. Photos from this great site). Crosby plays himself, and the scenes of the women stampeding to kiss him are funny but entirely believable. Women fell in love with his voice on the radio, and the early shorts and movies use that as a story line.

Here he is, in The Big Broadcast, singing Dinah looking like a male model for Banana Republic, and  Please accompanied by the legendary Eddie Lang.



The tragedy of Eddie Lang. Lang met Crosby when they were both in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and Eddie followed when Bing left the band. They were very close, and Giddins writes how devastated Crosby was when Lang died, hemorrhaging after a tonsillectomy. It was Crosby who had recommended that Lang have his tonsils out to help with chronic hoarseness and so be able to take on speaking parts in future Crosby films. It was an enormous burden for Crosby to bear that Lang died at age 30 from this operation that he recommended.

Important Beatles notes: John Lennon sites Crosby's Please as an influence for his writing Please Please Me: "I was always intrigued by the words of ‘Please, lend me your little ears to my pleas’ – a Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word ‘please’."

And in Scorsese's Living in a Material World documentary, Olivia Harrison says of George: "He liked the moon, you know. If the wind was blowing and the full moon was up, he’d put on Bing Crosby singing "Sweet Leilani" and just make the moment even better. And then he might hand you a gardenia."

The First Music Video?
In 1932 Marion Davies insisted on Crosby as her leading man in Going Hollywood, a wild pastiche of a musical. It’s maybe best known for the Grand Central extravaganza number, while the Make Hay While the Sunshine number is almost too hard to watch.

But there is one scene that deserves a place in film history: a drunk, disheveled Crosby singing Temptation intercut with close-ups of the smoldering Fifi D’Orsay. It’s dark and evocative, with other cuts to blurry, tightly-packed bodies, swaying to the pulsating rhythms of the song. It looks like an early music video. The comments on YouTube tell it all: “how young he is” and “how sexy he is” and “Crosby has more talent in his little finger than Sinatra has in his whole body” [okay, that one is just a nice swipe at the other guy].



Yeah. That’s what propelled Crosby into the hearts and imagination of an entire generation, three quarters of a century ago.

Stardust, 1931
One more (audio) clip: Crosby in 1931 singing Star Dust (first published as two words, and then one). It’s nothing like the standard Nat King Cole. He sings it with a wild abandon, always pushing on the tempo. Pure passion. Pure despair. Pure, natural talent.




This Crosby of the 1930s is the guy who fired my father's imagination to be a life-long fan.  As well as a guy from Hoboken, named Frank. And that's a pretty good legacy in itself.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday: Saint Peter's Worst Day


Thanks to Gwen Toth, the amazing director of music at Immanuel Lutheran Church and founder/director of the early music group ARTEK, I learned an astonishing piece by the great Renaissance composer Orlando di Lassus.

It's Lagrime di San Pietro, The Tears of Saint Peter, a setting of a twenty-verse poem by the Italian poet Luigi Tansillo (published in 1560), to which Lassus added a final motet.

The music is rich and soaring and dense and transparent all at the same time, like all the masterworks of Renaissance polyphony.

But it is the text that is such a discovery for me. The poet Tansillo imagines the grief beyond grief that Peter feels after he has actively denied Christ three times before the cock crows. It's a rich, relevant thought for contemplation that speaks across the ages.

At the Last Supper Jesus told Peter that he would disown him three times before the cock crowed.

Peter replied: "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will." "I tell you the truth."

OF course that's not what happens. From Gospel of Luke, the third denial:

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean." Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.



When Eyes Met

Tansillo's verse focuses on that image of Jesus turning and looking straight at Peter, imagining what it must have been like for their eyes to meet and for Peter to comprehend the magnitude of what he had done.

The entire poem is worth reading, because it tells such moving story, but these excerpts give you an idea. Peter projects his fear and shame onto Christ, that Christ is angry at him for the denial. But Christ has no such anger or hatred of Peter, and when Peter realizes this, he can barely stand it.


When noble Peter, who had sworn
that midst a thousand spears and a thousand swords
he would die beside his beloved Lord,
realized that, overcome by cowardice,
his faith had failed him in his great moment of need,
the shame, sorrow and pity
for his own failure and for Christ's suffering
pierced his breast with a thousand darts.

But the bows which hurled
the sharpest and most deadly arrows
into his breast were the Lord's eyes, as they looked at him;

It looked as if his Lord, surrounded by many
enemies and abandoned by his peers, wanted to say:
"What I foretold him has now come to pass,
disloyal friend, proud disciple"

"More cruel", He seemed to say, "are your eyes
than the godless hands that will put me on the cross;
nor have I felt a blow that struck me as hard,
among the many that did strike me,
as the one that came out of your mouth.

I found no one faithful, nor kind,
among the many that I deemed worthy to be called mine:
but you, for whom my love was so intense,
are more deceitful and ungrateful above all the others.
Each of them offended me only by leaving me:
but you denied me"

The words full of anger and love
that Peter seemed to see written
on the serene, holy eyes of Christ,
would shatter whoever who heard them.

Like a snowbank which, having lain frozen
and hidden in the depth of the valley all winter,
and then in springtime, warmed by the sun,
falls apart and melts into streams,
such was the fear which had lain like ice
in Peter's heart and made him repress the truth;
when Christ turned His eyes on him,
it melted and was changed into tears.

And his crying was not a small spring
or mountain stream, which dries in the warm seasons;
for although the king of Heaven forgave him
immediately for his disgraceful deception,
not a single night in his remaining life passed
without the cock's crow waking him up
and reminding him how shamefully he behaved,
and inciting new tears for the ancient betrayal.

Realizing that he felt much different
than before, and unable to bear to remain
in the presence of the scorned Lord,
who loved him so, he didn't wait to see
if the harsh tribunal would hand down
a severe or clement sentence, but,
leaving the despicable place where he was,
bitterly crying, he returned outside.

By denying my Lord, I denied
life itself from which every spirit springs:
a tranquil life that neither fears nor desires,
whose course flows on without end:
because then I denied the one true life,
there is no reason, none at all, to continue this false life.
Go then, vain life, quickly leave me:
since I denied true life, 1 do not want its shadow.”

So Peter is in despair, almost it seems to the point of suicide. But we know he rallies, and is the rock upon whom the Church is built. The stone rejected by the builders is now the cornerstone.

And yet, that moment of looking Jesus in the eyes after he denied himself 3 times when it really counted was a cross for life.

The end of the Lassus piece is an older, Latin motet re-set. Its words are also pretty incredible: Christ on the cross telling us that as horrific and painful are the nails and spears, they are nothing to the pain of ingratitude. Imagine that.


Behold, mankind, what I suffer for you,
To you I cry, I who am dying for you;
behold the pains with which I am afflicted;
behold the nails with which I am pierced.
There is no pain like that of the cross;
and great though my body’s suffering might be,
the pain of ingratitude, however, is worse,
such ingratitude as I have experienced from you.



Images
Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter, 1610
 Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter

Saturday, August 3, 2019

History of a Two Weeks' Tour Through Switzerland



One night—it was in 1816, and one of those nights the Swiss believe God made for them alone—a boat approached silently, leaving behind her a wake brilliantly broken in the light of the moon. She drifted in towards the whitened walls of Chillon Castle and touched the bank without any shiver, without a sound, like a settling swan.


From it stepped a pale-faced man with piercing eyes, his uncovered head held proudly. He was wearing a black cloak that reached to his feet, which however, did not entirely hide the fact that he limped slightly. He requested to be shown Bonnivard’s cell. There he remained, alone, for a long time. When he had gone, another name was inscribed on the martyr’s pillar—Byron.

Alexandre Dumas, Travels in Switzerland, 1832, published 1843

It is now nearly three weeks since my Journey took place, and the journal I then kept was not very copious; but I have so often talked over the incidents that befell us, and attempted to describe the scenery through which we passed, that I think few occurrences of any interested will be omitted.  (In homage to Mary Shelley's History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland.)

I came to Switzerland because of family, but I found myself living in the footsteps of long-beloved writers. My journey became my own bookshelf writ large, as I joined Dumas, the Shelleys, Byron, Mark Twain, J. W. Turner, Charles Dickens, Gibbon, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, and many others through the German- and then French-speaking parts of the extraordinary country.

My great grandfather Sebastian Anton Waldis was Swiss, his daughter was my maternal grandmother, Regina Caroline Waldis Brown. She passed down to us a small wooden box with the word Rigi carved on the bottom that her father brought with him on his long immigration journey. In our own middle age, my brother and I became interested in the Swiss heritage that we had long ignored, given the ethnic dominance of being O’Neill’s from Brooklyn.

Sebastian’s marriage certificate listed Arth, Switzerland as his birthplace. Odd sounding town. Google maps showed it to be a tiny hamlet on Lake Zug, about an hour south of Zurich, in the canton of Schwyz.  I planned a trip to visit his hometown, and to see more of country, then join with an organized bike tour out of Lausanne. And that is how I came to live in the heady world of Mt. Rigi and the surrounding towns of Weggis, Vitznau, Arth, and Lucerne, then over to Lake Geneva, Gstaad, and Bern.


Mark Twain's “Sunrise” on Mt. Rigi

Dining in a cable car from Weggis
“In a moment we were deeply absorbed in the marvel before us, and dead to everything else. The great cloud-barred disk of the sun stood just about a limitless expanse of tossing white-caps—so to speak—a billowy chaos of massy mountain domes and peaks draped in imperishable snow and flooded with an opaline glory of changing and dissolving splendors, while through rifts in a black cloud-bank above the sun, radiating lances of diamond dust shot to the zenith. The cloven valleys of the lower world swam in a tinted mist which veiled the ruggedness of their crags and ribs and ragged forests, and turned all the forbidding region into a soft and rich and sensuous paradise.  

We could not speak. We could hardly breath. We could only gaze in drunken ecstasy and drink it in.”  Mark Twain, Tramps Abroad, 1880

There is still a rush to be on the top of Mt. Rigi, called Rigi Kulm, at dawn to see the sunrise. I was happy to summit at midday. Mark Twain’s attempt is wrapped in his signature comedic happenstances: he and his traveling companion had slept all day.  What they first thought was the sunrise, they realized was sunset.  Which I saw from a unique dining experience in the cable car to Rigi Kaltbad from Weggis.  You can see how easily sunset and sunrise could be confused.

Arth, Brunnen, and Lucerne, as I fall into the footsteps of the Romantics

The hand-carved box great granddad brought from Switzerland, on Lake Lucerne

The Rigi-Bahn station at the top of Mt. Rigi

Arth itself having no good hotels, I stayed in Vitznau—the town Sebastian’s own grandfather Franz Joseph was from—on Lake Lucerne. Everything that has been written about the beauty of the Swiss lakes is weak in the face of their actuality. I brought GGdad's wooden box with me, to the shores of the lake. Arth being on the other side of Mt. Rigi, I needed to take the amazing cog wheel up one side of the mountain, and down the other.

The journey from Vitznau is the more dramatic as you ride at an astounding incline into the air, the town falling away as you enter the clouds. The journey down to Arth is miles and miles of the forest primeval. In Arth I visited the church of Sebastian’s baptism. Built in 1694, the baptismal font looked like it could be from 1854, and that brought his past into my present, into my journey.

Next I went to the Staatsarchiv in Schwyz to inquire for more details about Sebastian’s life, where I learned that he was in prison in the neighboring Brunnen for 4 years. Privacy laws attach to all court records from 1848 onward, and so I’m working with an archivist to get the record unsealed. My heart tells me it was for stealing a loaf of bread. This is a man who carried a tiny wooden box on the long journey from Switzerland, and named my grandmother after his mother and sister.

Mary Shelley had a very different experience of Brunnen:

“The summits of several of the mountains that enclose the lake to the south are covered by eternal glaciers; of one of these, opposite Brunen, they tell the story of a priest and his mistress, who, flying from persecution, inhabited a cottage at the foot of the snows. One winter night an avalanche overwhelmed them, but their plaintive voices are still heard in stormy nights, calling for succour from the peasants.

Brunen is situated on the northern side of the angle which the lake makes, forming the extremity of the lake of Lucerne. Here we rested for the night, and dismissed our boatmen. Nothing could be more magnificent than the view from this spot.  The high mountains encompassed us, darkening the waters; at a distance on the shores of Uri we could perceive the chapel of Tell, and this was the village where he matured the conspiracy which was to overthrow the tyrant of his country; and indeed this lovely lake, these sublime mountains, and wild forests, seemed a fit cradle for a mind aspiring to high adventure and heroic deeds.

Yet we saw no glimpse of his spirit in his present countrymen. The Swiss appeared to us then, and experience has confirmed our opinion, a people slow of comprehension and of action; but habit has made them unfit for slavery, and they would, I have little doubt, make a brave defence against any invader of their freedom.”  
Mary Shelley, History of Six Weeks' Tour
The steamboat serving Vitznau to Lucerne across Lake Lucerne

I took the steam boat from Vitznau to Lucerne. The water, the landscape: the very same the Shelleys experienced. It was like walking into the timeless spaces in Mary Shelly’s own travelogue. What delights me about travelogue is the voice, the voice of a writer you enjoy, now more directly speaking to you, sharing details with you, the potential fellow traveler.

“We departed the next morning for the town of Lucerne. It rained violently during the first part of our voyage, but towards its conclusion the sky became clear, and the sunbeams dried and cheered us. We saw again, and for the last time, the rocky shores of this beautiful lake, its verdant isles, and snow-capt mountains.”

The Shelleys and I Go Over to Lausanne 

“The rain detained us two days at Ouchy. We however visited Lausanne, and saw Gibbon's house. We were shewn the decayed summer-house where he finished his History, and the old acacias on the terrace, from which he saw Mont Blanc, after having written the last sentence. There is something grand and even touching in the regret which he expresses at the completion of his task. It was conceived amid the ruins of the Capitol. The sudden departure of his cherished and accustomed toil must have left him, like the death of a dear friend, sad and solitary.

My companion gathered some acacia leaves to preserve in remembrance of him. I refrained from doing so, fearing to outrage the greater and more sacred name of Rousseau; the contemplation of whose imperishable creations had left no vacancy in my heart for mortal things. Gibbon had a cold and unimpassioned spirit. I never felt more inclination to rail at the prejudices which cling to such a thing, than now that Julie and Clarens, Lausanne and the Roman Empire, compelled me to a contrast between Rousseau and Gibbon.” Percy Bysshe Shelley's July 12 letter in Mary's Travelogue

Is there a more naturally literary soul than Shelley? I love his angst about contrasting Gibbon and Rousseau.  I feel connected to the literary continuum by the nestling dolls of literary fandom. Shelley is moved by seeing where Gibbon finished Roman Empire in Lausanne, and he visited Vevai/Vevey where “Rousseau conceived the design of Julie.” For Dumas, it was tracking down Chateaubriand.

Hotel Angleterre, Lausanne
In Lausanne I did not make it to the plaque that shows where the Hotel Gibbon stood with its garden of acacia trees, but I made sure to see Hotel Angleterre et Residence where Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon.

My bike tour met up in a hotel next to Hotel Angleterre. We biked through the UNESCO Lavaux vineyards—producer of the lovely grape Chasselas—over to Vevey, on Lake Geneva.  From the town, we started biking around the glorious lake, through the district of Montreux, until the celebrated castle was in sight.




The Prisoner of Chillon



The display about Francois Bonivard at Castle Chillon, the inspiration for Byron's poem

There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon's dungeons deep and old

“We passed on to the Castle of Chillon, and visited its dungeons and towers. These prisons are excavated below the lake; the principal dungeon is supported by seven columns, whose branching capitals support the roof. Close to the very walls, the lake is 800 feet deep; iron rings are fastened to these columns, and on them were engraven a multitude of names, partly those of visitors, and partly doubtless of the prisoners, of whom now no memory remains, and who thus beguiled a solitude which they have long ceased to feel. One date was as ancient as 1670. ” Shelley's letter in Mary's Travelogue

Byron's signature carved into the pillar he thought was "the" pillar; or added by savvy Castle staff

The first thing every guide says at the Castle is how it is the most visited cultural site in all of Switzerland because of Byron. To this day.

The other tidbit is editorial: that things couldn’t have been too bad for Francois Bonivard because when he was freed, he married four times, and was always in debt because of his extravagant lifestyle. The implication being that he wasn’t damaged by being in prison from 1530 to 1536, and chained to a pillar for the last four of them. He was a prisoner of Switzerland’s religious wars: he was a Catholic monk who started fighting for the rights of the Genevese  not be ruled by the Duke of Savoy. He became a celebrated Protestant on his release, and so the marriages.

Bryon paints a very different, though mythical picture.  The real Bonivard had no 5 brothers (although one of the guides thought he perhaps had one sibling, but he was not imprisoned with him.)

Byron’s poem is a masterpiece of darkness and suffering. If Bonivard himself perhaps was not in extreme pain during his imprisonment, many people were devastated by the cruelty and barbarity of the religious wars

Their belief with blood have seal'd,
Dying as their father died,
For the God their foes denied;—

Sir Walter Scott's review Quarterly Review 16 (October 1816) 172-208:
"It will readily be allowed that this singular poem is more powerful than pleasing. The dungeon of Bonivard is, like that of Ugolino, a subject too dismal for even the power of the painter or poet to counteract its horrors. It is the more disagreeable as affording human hope no anchor to rest upon, and describing the sufferer, though a man of talents and virtues, as altogether inert and powerless under his accumulated sufferings. Yet as a picture, however gloomy the colouring, it may rival any which Lord Byron has drawn, nor is it possible to read it without a sinking of the heart, corresponding with that which he describes the victim to have suffered."

Is the signature Byron’s? I would think not. There's too much space between the "B" and "Y," which has lead to an odd dot being added through the years.

Lake Geneva/Leman is well served by a fleet of steamboats. You can see the enormous pistons

From the Castle, we took the steamboat back to Vevey.

“We sailed from Clarens to Vevai. Vevai is a town more beautiful in its simplicity than any I have ever seen. Its market-place, a spacious square interspersed with trees, looks directly upon the mountains of Savoy and La Valais, the lake, and the valley of the Rhone. It was at Vevai that Rousseau conceived the design of Julie.” Shelley's July 12 letter in Mary's Travelogue

Alphorn players on Lake Lucerne in Vevey for the Fete des Vignerons, 2019

The next day we headed for Gstaad, where Hemingway is still remembered, and then on to Bern. Making the journey to great grandfather’s hometown was a privilege. It was even more of a privilege to journey with the good education that brought me the richness of the Romantics in Switzerland.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Centenary of the Armistice: A Personal Cycle Closes and a Gash That Never Heals



"Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected... Its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends... Millions were destroyed because two people, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, were shot... But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing meliorist myth... It reversed the idea of Progress."
Paul Fussell


This Sunday, November 11, 2018, at 11:00 am, a personal gyre of history closes for me.

I entered college with an attachment to the First World War, if that’s what you can call it, because of T.E.Lawrence. I had read through Seven Pillars of Wisdom in high school and fallen under its heady spell. Lawrence was a gifted writer who embodied the English literary tradition from the inside, and he wrote his own mythology simply because he could: he knew the power of the trope and how to wield it (and saw an opportunity in the newsreels of his own personal Barnum, Lowell Thomas).

To my Freshmen amazement, there was a class on World War One Literature, taught by Paul Fussell, based on his own National Book Award-winning The Great War and Modern Memory. It’s a cultural study/close reading of the literary tradition before WW1—particularly poetry--- and how it changed during and in relation to the war.

We did not study Lawrence, but I discovered the vast and profound literature of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and the work of Sir Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, and Bernard Bergonzi. Few people were looking at this work in the 1980s, and it made a deep impression on me.

The Shell Shocked Lord Peter

Also in college I discovered the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, and her Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Her novels are murder mysteries, not Zola-like realistic drama but it is notable that her sleuth is suffering from shell shock.  It is worked into the stories in such a matter-of-fact way, such was the reality of the fate of the returning servicemen from World War 1.

Wimsey is seen as a foolish ass in some ways to start, but we learn that he was severely injured by artillery fire near Caudry, France, and suffered a complete breakdown when he was demobbed. The foolish demeanor is his way of coping with the shell shock.

In Whose Body, the first Wimsey novel, when he pushes himself too far it leads him to hallucinate he is back in the trenches. Luckily his manservant Bunter is nearby:

"Put that light out, damn you!" said Wimsey. "Listen—-over there-—listen—can't you hear it?"

"It's nothing, my lord," said Mr. Bunter, hastily getting out of bed and catching hold of his master; "it's all right, you get to bed quick and I'll fetch you a drop of bromide. Why, you're all shivering—you've been sitting up too late."

"Hush! no, no—it's the water," said Lord Peter with chattering teeth, "it's up to their waists down there, poor devils. But listen! can't you hear it? Tap, tap, tap—they're mining us—but I don't know where—I can't hear—I can't. Listen, you! There it is again—we must find it—we must stop it . . . Listen! Oh, my God! I can't hear—I can't hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can't they stop the guns?"

"Oh, dear!" said Mr. Bunter to himself. "No, no—it's all right, Major—don't you worry."

"But I hear it," protested Peter.

"So do I," said Mr. Bunter stoutly; "very good hearing, too, my lord. That's our own sappers at work in the communication trench. Don't you fret about that, sir."

Lord Peter grasped his wrist with a feverish hand.

"Our own sappers," he said; "sure of that?"

"To be sure they will," said Mr. Bunter, "and very nice, too. You just come and lay down a bit, sir—they've come to take over this section."

"You're sure it's safe to leave it?" said Lord Peter.

A later novel, The Unpleasantness at the Belladonna Club, begins on Armistice Day, 1928, and the plot revolves around the fact that for the 2 minutes of silence at 11:00 am on November 11, nobody moves, so the killer can get to his target unseen.

It’s also notable for this exchange between Wimsey and Captain Fentiman from the war:

George: "I wish to God Jerry had put me out with the rest of ‘em. What’s the good of coming through for this sort of thing? What’ll you have?”

Wimsey: “Dry Martini.  Cheer up. All this Remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth. However, it won’t do to say so. . . .How are things going for you?

George: “Oh rotten as usual. Tummy all wrong and no money. What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his inside gassed out, and loses his job, and all they give him is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income-tax.”

* * * * *

That negative feeling toward the Remembrance Day services has been around since they began, particularly from the men and women who served. They ceremonies provide a psychological balm for some, and not for others. If there were no ceremonies, no remembrance, would that be better?

This lucite statue was created by the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation in collaboration with the Remembered and its inaugural Armistice 2018 Project, There But Not There. The poppy is from the gift shop at the Flanders Museum in Ypres, Belgium, the medieval Cloth Hall that was completely razed in WW1 and then rebuilt.

The problem of shell shock, of PTSD of the gash to the souls of the combatants--will continue as long as soldiers are sent to war to kill each other.  It's a matter of life and death for us all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Giving Deep Thanks for My Courageous German Great Grandmother


"Mareichtag and I are speaking nothing but English now. So we should feel at home when we get to America."

"To America!" [Watch the wonderful scene.]

I am a life-long fan of Casablanca, and as the years have gone by, I have discovered more and more cosmic connections to it.

Ten years after I moved to West 103 Street in Manhattan, another fan succeeded in documenting that Humphrey Bogart was born right across the street from our apartment. The city put up an official street sign and plaque, and Lauren Bacall and Stephen Bogart came to the unveiling. It was my beloved film coming to life right on my doorstep.

 I now have a new connection the classic: the short scene of Herr and Frau Leuchtag on their way to America.

Because, it turns out, I am truly part German. My great grandmother on my mother's side--Susanna Sander Waldis--was German and came to America in 1875 as a 10-year-old girl.

On Saturday I am on my way to Trier, Germany—Prussia in her day—which we now have documentation to prove is the town of her birth.

Wherein My Brother Discovers a Talent for Ancestry Research
It’s been quite the road of discovery. As an O’Neill, the Irish/Brooklyn Irish Catholic American-ness was the dominant culture growing up. My identity as a daughter of Erin is very strong, forged from the Clancy Brothers/Bing Crosby-fueled spirit in the household led by my dad and his best friends, my faux uncles.

My mother’s side of the family was quieter. And Lutheran. Growing up we knew that her maiden name—Brown—had been changed at Ellis Island, when her paternal grandfather came over from Norway. His name was Jacob Jacobsen. He returned to Norway late in life, and relatives sent a photo of his gravestone to show the money they were sent to bury him had been correctly spent. So that was clear.

There was also a family story about four china plates that my maternal grandmother had, that her mother had “brought over on the boat from Germany.”

That might seem clear, but it was fuzzy. There was just that one story, and nothing else. So growing up, being one-part German had no resonance. It didn't seem quite true.

My brother became interested in our ancestry some years ago when the confluence of the DNA companies and records of all types being scanned made amateur  research possible.

Working Backwards: Finding the Immigrant Ship from Liverpool
We knew our great grandmother’s name: Susanna Sander (or Saunders). Pat found the record of her marriage certificate in Manhattan in 1885 to Anthony Waldis, a man from Switzerland!  And the marriage certificate had the names of both sets of parents and where they were born. That is how we learned of Lorenz Sander and Helene Berrens, from Trier, Germany.

Patrick next found a 10-year-old Susanna Sander on a ship manifest, leaving Liverpool, England in 1875.  It was the SS Kenilworth, and it docked in the port of Philadelphia on January 7, 1875.

The beauty of this: there are guilds of volunteers who type hand-written ship manifests into databases that can be searched.  Isn’t that wonderful.  If no one did that, then the handwritten documents would be completely silent.

As it happens, I had the opportunity to be in Liverpool in June. And so I found myself at Albert Dock, and the Maritime Museum, which is more and more exploring the enormous historical significance of Liverpool in the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. The museum has a permanent exhibit where they try to re-create the experience of those ships in the late 1800s. I walked between the wooden bunks, around the large galley tables, all on an angle with the sound of water lapping against the walls, but I knew nothing can re-create immigrant steerage travel conditions in 1875.

Maritime Museum Immigrant Ship Experience; Liverpool, England

I tried to imagine little Susanna and her 44-year-old mom and 5 siblings, speaking no English, making their way to Liverpool--how?--and then waiting for their ship.

There is a statue on Albert Dock commissioned by the Mormons--the MVPs of genealogy--called The Crossing. It shows a 19th century immigrant family-- a mother and father with the kids--but I imagine the reality was many women traveled alone, crossing with their children, joining the husbands who went over earlier.

Liverpool, England; Albert Dock
The Maritime Museum has a great restaurant on the top floor. I raised a glass of wine to Susanna and her brave mother and siblings, getting on that ship, not knowing the language, not knowing what that 2-week voyage would be like, and what was ahead.

Liverpool, England; Maritime Museum at Albert Dock
Susanna grew up and made her way in the New World, married a man from Switzerland in Manhattan, and they moved to a farm near Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Farm life is harsh, I don't think she had a particularly happy life. She had 10 children, only 2 of whom survived childhood: my grandmother Rena, and her sister, my great aunt Helen. My grandmother is the one who escaped the farm by becoming a maid for a Lutheran minister who lived in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.  She is one of the links that gave me the enormous gift of being born in Brooklyn. My great aunt Helen never escaped rural Pennsylvania.

I guess it's not so unusual that there weren't more family details of Susanna's immigrant experience. She had made it to America and did not want to be seen as an outsider.  She came to live with her daughter and my mom in Brooklyn around 1938 when she was in her 70s. My mom says that she spoke without any accent. How/when she learned English is not known. She was a voracious reader--mom says my grandmother was always going to the library to bring her new books. That makes me feel close to her, and I hope she found great enjoyment there.

Susanna died in Brooklyn in 1950 at 85, and is buried with her people back in Pennsylvania.

So, Which Religion Are We?
And now I have the very great privilege to return to Trier. I have never been to Germany, I’ve had no particular desire to visit, but I want to see where the Sanders came from, and great grandmother Susanna lived until she was 10.  Lost to history is any reason why they left.

There is one more little twist to this lineage tale. My mother was baptized Lutheran, as was her mother, and we assumed,  Susanna and her husband from Switzerland. My grandmother married a Norwegian American in the Swedish Seamen’s Church in Brooklyn, a Lutheran church.

I have an appointment at the Trier Diocese Archives office. They verified that they have parish records from 1800s showing the Sander family baptisms and deaths at Saint Gervasius Church.

Trier is a Catholic city. Saint Gervasius is a Catholic Church. So Susanna came to the US a Catholic.

Hmm.

We knew about the sadness of Susanna's 8 children dying.

We only recently learned a crucial detail from a cousin of my mom's: when the local rural priest came to bury one of the children, Susanna gave him some money (which is customary). He threw it on the ground and said it was not enough.

It’s an ugly, heartbreaking story. When Susanna’s later children were born, she had them baptized Lutheran.

In a twist of fate, my mother married a Roman Catholic, she later converted to Catholicism, and I was baptized Catholic. So I will return to Susanna’s homeland as a daughter of her original faith. It sadly made me pause to think of the thousands who have died over the centuries in religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, when it's really all in the family.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I'll continue the story on the other side.

Susanna Sander Waldis, circa 1930, rural Pennsylvania

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Thomas Hardy's Guy Fawkes Bonfire & the Lessons of Eustacia Vye


While the men and lads were building the pile, a change took place in the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district.

It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

Thomas Hardy set his beguling The Return of the Native in his beloved Wessex, around Guy Fawkes Day. It gives us an excellent, up-close look at this most Albion of holidays.

First, A Quick Guy Fawkes primer, from the History Channel site * * * 

•Catholicism in England was heavily repressed under Queen Elizabeth I
•During her reign, dozens of priests were put to death, and Catholics could not legally celebrate Mass or be married according to their own rites.
•Many Catholics had high hopes when King James I took the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603. James’ wife, Anne, is believed to have previously converted to Catholicism, and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was Elizabeth’s Catholic archrival prior to being executed.

•It soon became clear, however, that James did not support religious tolerance for Catholics.
•In 1604 he publicly condemned Catholicism as a superstition, ordered all Catholic priests to leave England and expressed concern that the number of Catholics was increasing.
•He also largely continued with the repressive policies of his predecessor, such as fines for those refusing to attend Protestant services. * * *

This is the context whereby 13 Catholics got the stupid, murderous idea that blowing up James 1, while he was speaking in the House of Parliament,  would put his daughter on the throne and she might be more lenient.

The conspirators brought 36 barrels of gunpowder into the tunnels under parliament and were going to ignite it during the session on Nov. 5. Lots of twists and turns ensued, which a UK education site discusses in detail, but Guy Fawkes, the poor sap left to guard the gunpowder, is discovered when the authorities decide to search the tunnels. The plot is completely foiled.

It's one of those quirks of history that Guy Fawkes is the face of the conspiracy, when Robert Catesby was the mastermind.  They were all executed one way or another. Fawkes was tortured on the rack to get the names of his co-conspirators, and so that he would sign a confession. There is a comparison of his handwriting before and after his torture which is very chilling..

Back to the History Channel * * *
 •Londoners immediately began lighting bonfires in celebration that the plot had failed and their king was not assassinated
•A few months later Parliament declared November 5 a public day of thanksgiving.
•Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Night, has been around in one form or another ever since.  * * *

In many counties it was the pope that was burned in effigy, along with Guy.  Then over time local bonfires burned all sorts of politicians in effigy.

Hardy's Bonfire on Edgon Heath and Eustacia Vye
Hardy wrote Return of the Native in 1878.  I love that he focuses on the primal urges of the bonfire—the Lux Fiat against the darkness—as the heart of the tradition, and not the echoes of the Gunpowder Plot with its religious baggage.

I read The Return of the Native in high school, a novel well matched to that time and place. Wildeve, the heath, the bonfires, the odd, red Diggory Venn character, cross-dressing mummers, burning a foe in effigy, Hardy’s relentless themes of loneliness and isolation—does anything more clearly speak to the surging angst of high school?

And to top it off, I connected with the tortured, sad, exotic figure of Eustacia Vye, deemed by a chapter heading to be Queen of the Night. It’s hard not to read Hardy as mocking his heroine, but this was a serialized novel during Victorian times, and modern irony was still waiting just over the horizon in the No Man's Land of World War I:

"Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman."

Hardy’s Tess has gotten the serious attention through the years, and we won’t even talk about the effect Jude the Obscure's Sue Bridehead and Father Time have had on subsequent literature.

But for me, Eustacia is the character that made me feel less lonely in high school, because she was so solitary.

She enters the story silhouetted against the Guy Fawkes bonfire:

"When the whole Egdon concourse had left the site of the bonfire to its accustomed loneliness, a closely wrapped female figure approached the barrow from that quarter of the heath in which the little fire lay.

Her reason for standing so dead still as the pivot of this circle of heath-country was just as obscure. Her extraordinary fixity, her conspicuous loneliness, her heedlessness of night, betokened among other things an utter absence of fear."

A tract of country unaltered from that sinister condition which made Caesar anxious every year to get clear of its glooms before the autumnal equinox . . . was not, on the face of it, friendly to women."


Hardy's language is a joy: "extraordinary fixity." It is astounding that he would write of a woman in terms of such strength—"utter absence of fear"—while understanding that such fearless independence can also be isolating. That was comforting to hear in high school.

Eustacia suffers from yearnings of grandeur: she is trapped by class and circumstance to live on the heath, which she detests, while she’s tormented by delusions of living in Paris. She yearns for love in an equally distraught way. Much of the book is overwrought passages about her comings and goings on the heath, as she walks between bonfires.

Yet, amid all the hype, I found a metaphor that seared into my teenage memory.

". . . a clue to her abstraction was afforded by a trivial incident. A bramble caught hold of her skirt, and checked her progress. Instead of putting it off and hastening along, she yielded herself up to the pull, and stood passively still. When she began to extricate herself it was by turning round and round, and so unwinding the prickly switch. She was in a desponding reverie."

Important lesson for women: beware the brambles of life because they will snag the hem of your dress if you are not careful. If you are not vigilant, they will keep you motionless, throw you into a desponding reverie,  or worse. Clear them away, or at the least, walk around them.

Here's the rub: It’s not always easy to see these low-growing thorns, especially when your gaze is focused elsewhere than on your feet, like when looking up at a glorious sky or into the eyes of a beloved or at the bobbing head of a toddler. And that's when you can get ensnared . . .

But since high school, I have been on the outlook for those brambles. And it has helped. Thanks, Hardy.