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.


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.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Twin Peaks The Return: The Day After

This is not another recap of Twin Peaks: The Return, just some observations I offer as part of the wonderfully participatory arena the whole TWR has provided.

I enjoyed the whole series, and loved both parts of the finale. I also loved reading all the intellectual interpretations about the huge subtleties within the art.

One of the questions the one-armed man asks in the Black Lodge (two times actually) is “Is it future or is this past?"  That idea is more prescient than Lynch could have possibly known when he wrote it, given the recent nuclear testing in North Korea and our government's heightened rhetoric.  For me, there are 2 real-life touchpoints to the series that will stay with me for a long time.


How eerie that David Lynch’s masterwork Twin Peaks: The Return ends on the weekend when I get a NY Times email alert: North Korean Nuclear Test Draws U.S. Warning of ‘Massive Military Response.

The art-house highlight of The Return—the extraordinary Episode 8—-is Lynch’s meditation on the ever-living effects of Trinity, the July 16, 1945 test of the A-bomb. Born in 1946, his early childhood was awash in “Drop, duck, and cover” taught in schools in the 1950s to prepare Americans to survive a nuclear attack. Children across the country went through actual drills where they methodically hid under their desks, as though that would save them.  Or they filed in neat little 1950s lines into "fallout shelters" in the school.

That anxiety of a nuclear attack seems to have had an enormous impact on Lynch’s young artistic mind. Throughout The Return Lynch brings us the ever ominous evils of electricity and multiple nightmares, including the “Gotta light?” walking incineration who kills all in his path. We get it. Mankind often faces manifestations of pure evil, many of his own doing.

The real-life threat of a war over nuclear war provides a whole new dimension of scary behind the simpler debatable semiotics of our beloved TV series.

The Return finale also made me think of the 1983 TV event that was The Day After, which aired on Sunday night, November 20. It was watched by more than 100 million people, including me. Even so, the possibility of nuclear war did not seem real to me then, so the horror of what happens to the fictional families in Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri just seemed like any horror film. [Lynch, by the way, is from Missouri.] Today I fear war over nukes is entirely possible.

The Day After is also notable for the live panel that ABC broadcast from Washington, right after the broadcast.  Ted Koppel hosted Henry Kissinger, Carl Sagan, Brent Scowcroft, William F. Buckley, Jr., Elie Wiesel, and Robert McNamara along with a studio audience.

Koppel opens with: “There is some good news. Look out the window. It’s all still there. It’s not too late yet.”  The panel is highly worth watching.

ABC also opened 1-800 lines with counselors if people wanted to talk to someone after watching the US suffer such destruction.

Like the TV show, which had no clear conclusion, the North Korea situation continues on in all of its evilness.

Gotta light?

Laura Palmer

The finale works its way back to the story of Laura Palmer. As many have said, the whole story exists because a young woman was raped and murdered by her father (possessed by a demon, in order to explain it).

One of the most poignant moments of the finale is Agent Cooper going back in time to the night Laura will be killed. He is “the thing that’s over there in the woods” from the prequel Fire Walk With Me. He stops Laura and takes her hand to lead her away from continuing on to her death.

That moment. That moment of intercession.

The most human of longings: IF ONLY.

IF ONLY someone had been there to stop the violence.

That is a powerful truth in our real world. It made me think of all the women who have been murdered—usually by men—because there was no one there, at that moment, to intercede. We know the names of some of these women because they are in the news, like Katina Vetrano,  raped and murdered while jogging in Brooklyn. But there are countless, countless names we don’t know. I travel alone a lot, and I am super aware of surroundings. I have experienced women dawdle in a secluded ATM area if I enter and everyone else has left, and I have done the same. But it's never, ever enough . . .

In our fantasy story, we don’t know if the intercession was entirely successful. But that’s a commentary on how you can’t mess with time travel. Has Agent Cooper never seen Doctor Who?

Having Twin Peaks: The Return end on Labor Day is perfect. It was a summer appointment for we who stuck with it.  Many are calling “fraud” on Lynch for another incoherent, lazy, over-indulgence that shows he has long lost his magic.

Given the state of the world and our own crass government, I celebrate the artistic expression from a kid from the Show Me state. Long may we all go on Lynchian voyages together.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Two Women for the Ages: Princess Diana & Mother Teresa, 20 Years in Heaven

 Time marches on. It is twenty years now since these two extraordinary women died 6 days apart in 1997. They had met just two months earlier that year, June 18, 1997, when Diana visited one of the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx. 

How oddly fitting that Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, who had some connections in life, are connected to each other in death because they died six days apart in 1997. The coverage of Diana’s death made for a somewhat memorable Labor Day weekend that year, which then rolled right into the coverage of Mother Teresa.

And now, this week, we pause to remember that it has been twenty years since Diana died in a car crash. At the ten year anniversary, the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light came out, along with an article in Time that put forth the extraordinary idea that Mother Teresa basically lost her faith just at the moment she started the work with the poorest of the poor for which she is known.

Princess Diana, Escaping for Love
I happened to be awake 20 years ago when the first reports of Diana’s car accident broke into CNN. Shortly after, her death was announced, and it was shocking, in the way that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death was. Young people with all the earthly gifts possible, dying in sudden, violent ways makes one stop for a moment. You intellectually know that this very day can be your last, but incidents like this make that idea more tangible.

I haven’t read Tina Brown’s book nor any of the cottage industry of tell all rags on the princess, but I have kept up with her story over the years. We share a birth year, but while she was getting married in 1981, I was off crewing on a schooner and didn’t get to see the wedding. My feminist friends at college had given me a “Don’t Do It Di” button, which their English counterparts had made up following a headline in the feminist magazine Spare Rib. But I didn’t understand it back then. I didn’t know what they were talking about, why shouldn’t she marry her prince, an actual prince? I think theirs was a general invective against the patriarchal monarchy, but how eerily prophetic was their warning.

The draw of the Royals, for most people, is simply that it’s a family writ larger than in our own homes. The saddest part of their particular mess is the triangle of Charles and Camilla and Di. Having a husband/lover who is always thinking of another is a soul crushing, living hell. It’s a shattering experience, and whatever personal struggles and demons Diana had herself—-bipolar/borderline personality, bulimia-—the unrelenting presence of Camilla in her marriage doomed any spec of happiness she might have known.

And to make it worse, Diana was horribly subjected to the subtle and not so subtle power plays from everyone around her. For instance, Camilla supposedly is responsible for Di getting into that monstrosity of a wedding dress, under the guise of the old guard helping her. Parker-Bowles supposedly laughed and laughed with her friends at how successful she was in making the wedding of the century look buffoonish. (This sickening power play is at least a plausible explanation for that nightmare in taffeta.)

It also illuminates how utterly Diana’s mother was missing from the whole equation, and what a devastating absence it proved to be. Frances Althorp Shand Kydd was an enigmatic woman. She also married young, to an older man of stature, and found herself in an unhappy marriage. She had an affair with Peter Shand Rydd, and a year later divorced Diana’s father and married him. (He would leave her years later for a younger woman.) It seems that with this kind of split, where Lady Althorp's own mother testified against her in the custody hearing in favor of Lord Althorp getting custody of their children, she wasn’t very close to her daughter at all, and that’s very sad for both of them.

In the end, I admired Diana for playing the hand she was dealt. She developed her dazzling style and looks as a way to parry the blows to her self esteem from the Royal family. She refused to stay in a sham marriage, and believed that she could have actual love with the right man, if she could find him. She saw two little boys through their early childhood with much genuine love and caring. And in the larger historical dimension, she reinvigorated the monarchy for all time. It was a short life well lived.

Mother Teresa, Losing Her Faith
Mother Teresa died six days later on Sept. 5. She was 87 years old, and her death was neither sudden nor violent. The ten-year mark saw the publication of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, a collection of letters in her own hand that speak to her loss of belief in God. Teresa had been an ordinary teaching nun of the Sisters of Loreto of Ireland for 15 years when she received a “call within the call” to leave her convent and work with the misery of the world’s poorest poor.

What follows is a life that has been lionized and pulled apart from every angle. Either her homes for the poor are badly run or they aren’t. There are questions of where all the donations to her Sisters of Charity go—so the accounting is questionable. There’s the question of her judgment, in aligning herself with the likes of Charles Keating. Nothing here is surprising. Human institutions and their leaders are always corrupt in some way.

But her internal loss of faith is startling. For fifty years she struggled to regain her faith in Christ: “for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.'"

Even the Eucharist had no meaning for her, which pretty much caps it: “I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist]."

For the cynics team, this means she lead a life of complete hypocrisy. That she “knew” there was no God, and she didn’t have the courage to admit it. Of course she has no more actual knowledge on the subject than any of us. She was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church on September 4, 2016.

Just as Princess Diana was subjected to much armchair psychology, there are theories in the Time piece that Mother Teresa needed to sabotage her own success. Maybe. Maybe she wanted to leave her institution just as much as Diana wanted to leave hers, but didn’t have the strength or ability to make it happen.

I find much to learn from both of these larger-than-life women, and it all comes back to love. As a late teenager Diana thought she had found it in Charles, and she paid for her misperception for the rest of her life, and one could argue, with her life. Mother Teresa once felt a presence of Christ’s love so strong that it negated the need for the love of an earthly kind. She was surprised and saddened when she later felt that His love had abandoned her, and she faced fifty years in a depressed darkness where she simply continued on as best she could. Such is the reality of many lives.

The two women admired one another, and I read somewhere that Diana is buried with a rosary that was a gift from Mother Teresa. Considering what an RC custom that is, it seems a little unlikely, but it’s a lovely thought.

Here’s the stirring hymn from Diana’s funeral, I Vow to Thee My Country.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day: My debt to my maternal grandmother, Rena Caroline Waldis Brown

Rena Waldis Brown at the Forest Lake Country Club circa 1918
Thinking of my maternal grandmother on this Mother's Day, whom I affectionately called Grammy Whammy because she was a pip.

She died in 1993 at the age of 93, born when the 19th century became the 20th century.

I have several of her belongings, but the one that is the most emotional for me is her Atlantic #511 washboard, from the National Washboard Co., Chicago, Saginaw, Memphis.

That washboard is a testament to the difficult realities of her life.  Rena Caroline Waldis was born in 1900 on a farm in rural Pennsylvania to immigrant Swiss German parents. The family history is sketchy—my mother’s generation didn’t ask questions of their parents. My brother has been doing some amazing ancestry work, and has found the immigrant records of Grammy's own mother coming over from Trier, Germany, on a ship through Liverpool, as a 10 year old with her mother and 4 siblings. That's a story for another day.

I know my great-grandparents were painfully poor. They had 11 children, only the first and last of whom survived childhood (my grandmother being the youngest). My great-grandfather died when my grandmother was young, leaving great-grandma with two girls to fend for themselves.

Grammy rarely spoke about her childhood, except in an offhand comment once that when she was still in the highchair her mother put an  iron in her hand so that she could iron handkerchiefs for one of the summer resorts in the area to earn pennies. And one other specific, that when she was a young girl her dog ate poison that a neighbor had put out to kill a fox, and died.  At 80 she could start crying whenever she told that story, so deep was her love for her dog, a lifelong love for all of her dogs.

What I know of her history picks up when she was 16 or so. She got a job at the Forest Lake County Club in Hawley, PA--a private club that opened in 1882 and continues today--as a waitress, and a laundress (picture above). Doing the resort’s sheets by hand was not easy. Hard manual labor followed her from the farm to the resort—it was all she knew.

Grammy had a very winning personality, and it turned out that a Lutheran reverend from Brooklyn summered there with his family. The family story goes that he said to her 'you should come to the big city' and so she did. She somehow navigated herself to Brooklyn and showed up on his doorstep to work as a live-in maid!  She had the spirit that told her there was more to life than a rural farm with no electricity, and she was going to go find it.  Her only surviving sibling did not have that spirit, and spent her entire life in the country.

In some ways Grammy hit the jackpot. I mean the reverend could have been from Boston (no offence) but no, it was New York, and Grammy had the soul of the quintessential New Yorker. I think she arrived in Brooklyn around 1919.

Again the history is a little sketchy.  After working for Reverend Harper for a while she got a job with a dowager as a paid companion--which always made me think of the Second Mrs. De Winter traveling with Mrs. Van Hopper to Monaco in the film Rebecca.

The dowager lived on Riverside Drive at 116 Street in Manhattan. Seven decades later I would move into an apartment literally up the block from there, on Claremont Avenue. Truly, what are the odds?

The years passed; Rena had a series of boyfriends. Somewhere along the line she met Arthur Cornelius Brown, a first generation American with Norwegian parents, and they began dating. It was the Depression, and he had a job as a mail carrier, which was good. Around when Grammy was 30 the dowager asked her to go to Europe with her.  Grammy said to her beau Arthur, “we get married, now, or I’m going to Europe.”

They got married.

I never met my grandfather, but it seems that married life did not turn out as Grammy was expecting. She had worked for wealthy people, and had received beautiful furniture and china as wedding gifts. She thought that she would be entertaining a lot herself, but as a mailman Grandpa worked very hard, and he wasn’t interested in much of a social life. It's also that he had been a bachelor for almost 40 years, and maybe that was too long.

My mother once told me that when she was a teenager she came upon her mother in the middle of a crying jag. I think about that sometimes. The life Grammy imagined was not her reality, even after all her will power had gotten her off the farm and into the most fabulous city in the world, where she was a success in many, many ways. She had her own money and her own bank account, no small feat for a woman in her day. She had the freedom of the great NY subway system, that she learned backwards and forward.  She had a mailman who came home, every day (something she liked to repeat), and two little girls, but perhaps something was missing, or just wasn't right.

I loved and admire her for all her struggles—for her strength, in surviving the pandemic influenza of 1918 (when the coffins in NY lined the streets), for her encyclopedic knowledge of the NY subway system, her life-long love of her dogs, for raising such a special daughter, for always sending money back to her sister who never left rural Pennsylvania, for playing tea party with me when I was 5 with much patience, and keeping her spirits up, even as old, old age descended on her, until at 93 she finally joined back up with Arthur.

Because she got off the farm, I am able to live in a condo in Manhattan that has a washer/dryer IN THE KITCHEN--which for Manhattan is still pretty rare.  How do I ever repay such a debt?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Massive MTA Failure: Sadly, Nothing New.

The MTA has been failing its costumers on an epic scale lately.  Yesterday's commuting nightmare also had Con Edison pitching in: NY Times "Why a Midtown Power Failure Snarled Your Morning Commute."  Snarled is a pretty cozy word for soul-sapping mess.  

Funny thing, when I was googling for info about yesterday's mess (April 21, 2017), I kept landing on articles I thought were about it, but were about other recent messes: "Chaos as power blackout hits New York's Grand Central bringing trains to a standstill" is from January, 2013

There really are too many examples to list, except perhaps for the one I've pasted below. From August 1980!

Kudos to The New York Times archives.  I started commuting from Long Island into Manhattan in high school during the summer of my junior year when I got an internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was soul-sapping (I know I've said that before.)  I was young and wanted to shout and scream about how awful this daily experience was, and of course was really thrilled when the NY Times ran it.

Even more satisfying: my brother, who also commuted, was on a Penn Station platform, trying to get to the stairs to get to the street, hemmed in by too many people who can but shuffle inch by inch to keep going, when he heard a guy say to his friend, "This is just what she was talking about."  He had read the article!  

Thirty years on, and commuters are still cattle. Maybe that is simply the fate of city dwellers.