Radio Essays

The Jewelry Box

The Jewelry Box

One of the worst days of my life was when I had to put my elderly mother, several stages into Alzheimer’s, into a senior living facility. My Dad was in a Florida hospital near their home with a 50% chance of survival. I lived in Ohio, a single parent with a 60 hour a week job. My brother, in Maryland, had used up his vacation time visiting our folks the prior week at the beginning of this emergency. The place we found seemed just right. If Dad survived, he’d join Mom there. If he didn’t, she’d be taken care of. Mom was angry, even throwing grapefruit at me in preparation for the move. But once I had her settled in her new apartment with her familiar things, she calmed down. We tidied her clothes and dresser. That’s when she grabbed her jewelry box, dumped the contents on the mattress, and slid onto the bed to survey all of it.

               “There. This is my life. Not much to show for it,” she declared, a tear running down her cheek. She picked up her first small, delicate wedding ring. “I was very thin when we got married. This is all your father could afford.” She fingered a gold brooch with a center flower. “I bought this for your grandmother. During the war. I spent a whole week’s salary on it – $25.00. You should take this home, I don’t want it around here.” Then, a Delft pin, Dad bought her on a trip to the Netherlands; a golden locket with a broken chain that she thought had been her mothers. She went on and on, remembering each precious bauble – her favorite wristwatch, earrings from a vacation, a silver snowflake pendant from when they lived in Vermont.  All these memories when at this point, she’d forgotten how to cook, sew, and work the washer and dryer.

               Until that day, it had never occurred to me that a woman’s life is in her jewelry box. After all, whatever she has, most of it represents special occasions – a birthday, anniversary, vacation, holiday. Some gifts from someone special; some personal purchases to remember that big trip, voyage, festival or life event. And there’s the pieces passed along in a family. Like the gold brooch I still have. A concrete timeline of a life.

               I look at my jewelry box differently now. It’s a box full of stories. So many stories.

w.c kasten

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Radio Essays

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day

W.C. Kasten

WERU Radio – “Esoterica”

I am going to share something difficult to say out loud. I dread Mother’s Day. I am anxious with its approach, sad when I see all the advertising around it, and sorrowful when it arrives. My best- case scenario is getting through it, pretending it’s not happening, pretending it’s just an ordinary Sunday. It seems unlikely I’m the only one who feels this way. So, why?

First, I mourn for the baby never born – the one that miscarried in 1985. The child who never arrived to grow up and join my family.

Then, I am sad and frustrated that the special needs child I adopted and raised and worked so very hard to heal – she rarely calls. She has never called on Mother’s Day. Keeping in touch from my end is difficult because her phone numbers keep changing, and all that’s left is Facebook for contact.

But the most heart wrenching part of this day is thinking about my mother. Thinking about a decade of her slipping into oblivion as Alzheimer’s disease progressed. First losing her purse and keys and wallet daily. Then losing her sense of place and time. Like one night I called her at her Florida home and asked how she was. “Fine. I just got here, and it’s so lovely in the mountains.” (She’d been there 13 years; Florida has no mountains). Or forgetting how to use the phone. Forgetting what a birthday card it and how to read. After a visit in 2004, I wrote:

I watch her staring into space

A vacant look upon her face

Hours and hours of sitting there

Blankly lulling in her chair.

 And then, finally, forgetting me.

I will always remember the moment she forgot me. That day I wrote  a few lines in my journal.

Today my mother forgot me.

Slid away that last wee memory.

I have known this was coming for years,

But I still could not hold back the tears.

Today, my mother forgot me.

For years she was at my very core

That will not happen any more

Today, my mother forgot me.

Mom’s lost in a sea of despair

In fact, she isn’t really there

Caught in a prison of fear

With voices we can’t even hear.

Today, my mother forgot me.

So, Mother’s Day is fraught with grief, rather than gratitude;  heartache rather than happiness.

I wish I could say this gets better with time. But it does not. Once, a few years after my mother passed away, I decided to call someone I admired – the mother of a dear friend.

“I just wanted to wish you a Happy Mother’s Day,” I told Rita C., who’d already gotten flowers from her son and phone calls from both her grandchildren.

“You’re missing your mother.” She said, wisely. “And I am missing mine. Rita C. was 96 then.

I guess this will never get any better.

One Mother’s Day, my husband gave me an orchid plant. I guess he could tell I was sad. That orchid means a great deal to me. It started blooming in February. A sweet delicate thing of beauty in an otherwise gloomy winter month. It’s blooming now.

That orchid plant, in all its glory, will help me cope with another Mother’s Day.

Radio Essays

Petition

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July 1967. Northern New Jersey, 12 miles outside of New York City. My older brother, Tom, then a high school student, had a summer job in Newark, New Jersey at Lafayette Radio. The city erupted in race-related riots to the extent that my brother was instructed to miss work and stay home for a few days. A white face could have been a target.

The New Jersey neighborhood where we lived had been mostly populated since the early twentieth century by Dutch and German immigrants, and then the children of Dutch and German immigrants. If you crossed over one major avenue in one direction, it was the Jewish neighborhood. If you were to walk past our elementary school, you had the Italian neighborhood to the right, and the Polish neighborhood to the left. So, I grew up with a fair amount of diversity, although everyone was of European ancestry.

So, I think it was the same summer, that the old couple, the Muldners, in the house next door finally passed away. Their house went on the market.  The for-sale sign went up, and people started looking at the house on Clinton Avenue.  One couple shopping for a home who looked at the Muldner’s former house was African-American. I thought it was kind of neat.  I just hoped there would be kids to play with.

So, maybe a few days later, I was at home with Dad, and the doorbell rang.  Dad got there first, but I was nosy and stepped out onto the window-lined porch behind him.  A man I had never seen before stood there, a clipboard in his hand. He began explaining that he’d started a petition to prevent anyone Black from buying that house next door to us. And, the man conjectured, we’d probably want to sign it, as these would be our neighbors. After all, having one Black family move in would invite others, and then the property values would go down, and who would want that?

What happened next had a profound influence on the rest of my life. My father said “NO.” He said it strongly. Then he gave the man a lecture about how that house next door could be purchased by anyone who had the money.  And that he, or any petition, had no say in the matter. The petitioner was quite surprised. He tried to argue. Dad would have none of it, and shut the front door on him.  I was so proud of my Dad that day.

It also made me wonder. I went to a large school, which had only white kids. Tom went to the new high school with over 3,000 kids, and they were all white. Why was that?  Dad taught in a high school in an adjacent community, and there were students of color there. Later it came to light that the realtors in the area had gotten together and formed an agreement, that they would show no houses in our city to any people of color. I felt embarrassed.

A few times in my life, I have had to stand up for something, something not everyone agreed with. Adults, not just kids exert peer pressure sometimes. I remember he also became president of his teacher’s union – twice. I remember he stood up for worker’s rights in a labor strike as a young carpenter.

The image of my father on the porch always comes to me. It calls up strength. It calls up legacy.  I am reminded that I am my father’s daughter.

Radio Essays

Honky Mom

Honky Mom

Most people I know did something special to commemorate the year they turned 50. My friend Joanne went to Paris, Martha went hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and Linda bought herself a Mercedes. I decided to adopt a child.  I was single, and had a very good job with flexibility, and my field meant that my knowledge of child development was extensive. Moreover, I had love to give.

I decided to stay in the public adoption arena, and because of my age, to seek a placement of an older child. After all, I did not want to be sitting at PTA meetings and dance recitals when I was on medicare. There are many children needing homes. And the majority of children awaiting adoption where I lived were African-American.  So, I ended up with a nine-year-old African-American girl named Amanda. I was Amanda’s 14th placement.

There’s much I could write about the experience of being an adoptive parent. But here, my focus is the surprises – of what it means raising a child whose ethnicity is different than mine.

First of all – hair. Hair is a big deal among African American women. “Nappy” hair is very different than my kind of brown straight hair. It requires special moisturizers and shampoos. Many African American women get regular “perms” – which means chemical straightening, relaxing tight kinky curls.

But the bigger issue was the subtle racism I saw everywhere. Where I lived, people of color were well-represented. Thus, I had no problem buying the needed hair products. My African-American colleagues and friends were only too happy to recommend their favorite brands, and sometimes even help teach me -the honky mom – how to use them.

I enrolled Amanda in ballet. She loved it. When recital time came, her class was assigned a cute frilly tutu. The tutu was meant to look strapless from a distance and so there were spaghetti straps that were – beige. Yes, light, light beige. Why don’t these things come in a few color choices? I asked myself.

For the Christmas concert at school, my daughter brought home a notice saying girls needed a back skirt, white blouse, and pantyhose. The skirt and blouse were easy. Then, I went shopping for Amanda’s first pair of pantyhose.

I have always chosen my pantyhose a shade darker than my skin. I looked through all the offerings – and every color was “beige” or “nude” or “tan.” Where were the brown-colored shades of pantyhose? Where do Black women buy their pantyhose? So, Amanda went to the school concert in pantyhose the color of wheat flour.

I had been thrilled at Christmas when the toy store had one black “Barbie” doll. Whew! Lucky, I thought. But later, when the therapist was trying to address Amanda’s many developmental delays, she asked me to assemble enough dolls to make a family – a mother, father, and children.  She’d use these in role playing family situations. So, I went shopping for a dark skinned “Ken.” There were none. The best I could do was a “Ken” with a tan – dressed in gaudy swimming trunks and holding up a surfboard. And so, I also bought a brown magic marker.

Yes, you guessed it. I sat there with a “Ken” doll and a brown marker and colored every inch of his body to make him brown.  He was a bit streaky in places, but mostly, it worked well.

It still bothers me that in a region of the country with plenty of people of color, that I had such a difficult time locating appropriate products. It seemed to me to be a subtle racism. A carelessness on the part of manufacturers. Certainly, a lack of sensitivity.

That was 20 years ago. I hope things have gotten better. At least now the internet opens up vast shopping opportunities. I hope black dolls and darker pantyhose are readily available.https://archives.weru.org/esoterica/2020/02/esoterica-2-4-20-honky-mom/