In the early 80’s, I was a doctoral student at the
University of Arizona in Tucson. As a full- time student, I was poor, and when
someone offered me some extra work for pay, I jumped on it. Here was the work:
Teach a 10-year-old Japanese boy to speak English.
A colleague whose spouse was a medical researcher was the source of the unusual request. A scientist from Japan was visiting UA for a year to work on some specific research. The scientist spoke reasonable English. The family took an apartment not far from where I lived, and so twice a week, I was well paid to have a 1-hour language session with a delightful young man, about 10 years old.
His mother spoke no English and had to negotiate
supermarkets, packages, mail, gas bills and other stores with no English
skills, so often I helped her as well.
It’s important to note there were three children in
this family, my student and two younger boys. There was no talk of tutoring the
younger ones. Apparently, an oldest son in birth order comes with unapologetic privileges.
Oh, and did I mention I do not speak Japanese?
I did however belong to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, a
sect based in Japan. I knew plenty of Japanese speakers. I knew some Japanese
words. Moreover, as a literacy and language student, I understood the
principles of language learning. The field of English and a Second Language or
English as a Foreign Language was not yet a reality. So, I had to figure out
how to teach my student. The opportunity to apply what I knew was delicious.
I organized our sessions around play, and words that
went with each situation. I started with school supplies and routines as he was
attending a local school. Some days we worked outside with a ball or other
sports equipment. Toy cars and toy soldiers were helpful. Sessions went well.
The Mom was trying out things she found in grocery
stores. One day, she pulled me aside with a problem. She had an empty box of
Jell-O in her hand. If you travel, you have learned Jell-O is a uniquely
American food. So, the Mom pointed to the picture on the box, and the bowl of
runny fluid in her refrigerator, noticing the picture and reality did not
match. It was clear she had been sitting with her Japanese-English Dictionary
translating every word of the instructions. But she could not find the meaning
of the word Refrigerate, the last instruction.
How can I explain refrigerate? I mimed opening
the door, putting in the bowl, pointing to a clock on the wall, showing the
passing of a few hours, then opening the fridge door. I could see in her face
she understood. Whew!
So, my visits continued twice a week for one school
year. In the spring, the family invited me to dinner. I was allowed to bring
along a Japanese friend for dinner and translation. Dinner was lovely. The Mom
gave me a parting gift – a Christmas ornament made of colorful thread wound
around a ball.
But the most interesting part of the dinner was the conversation with the Dad/scientist. He had lots to say. He said he’d assumed his children would be bored in American schools. He was led to believe his children would be far more advanced in math and science than U.S. children. He was still in some disbelief that this was not the case. Clearly, he’d given the topic some thought.
“My children know lots of operations and equations and
formulas,” he began. But they never learned the thinking that goes with these
math concepts. Here, they learned so much.” He was effusive about all this,
animated in the saying of it. He continued. “I think in Japan, our students are
taught to look for answers. I think in the US, students are taught to look for
I was just taking all this in, realizing the
incredible compliment to Tucson Unified Schools when he said something even
more stunning and which has stayed with me to this day, and has driven much of
my thinking about learning.
“Have you noticed that in my country we never invent
anything? We take other people’s ideas and might make it smaller or better or
cheaper. But we never have a new idea! Why IS that?”
At that time, I did not know how to respond. Even now, I cannot prove his statement that there are no inventions that have come out of Japan. But what a wonderful question!
Investigating the Question
During my 30 years in higher education, I still
thought about the scientist’s question: Why does his country of Japan never
have a new idea? (his assertion, not mine). A few times, I tried to engage
science education faculty to investigate this with me further. They all loved
the idea, but had their own lines of inquiry keeping them busy.
So, I did what professors do, I assigned a graduate
assistant to work on this some. I directed him to create a figure of the major
inventions of the 20th century, and to add columns for the year of
the invention, the name of the inventor, the birthplace of the inventor, and
the country in which the inventor was living when the invention was made.
The 20th century was a busy time. Lots of inventions. We limited inventions to “major” inventions – in other words things we have all heard of, things that changed life broadly, and internationally, not just in a particular region.
Data can be terribly exciting. I sat down with the Grad Assistant and looked at the figure. Would it surprise anyone that nearly all the major inventions come out of the United States? Many originate in the armed forced with applications for war or security (like fax machines, GPS). The famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology gets credits for several. Our own Kent State University (I was teaching there) gets credit for liquid crystals. Germany gets credit for the car (Mr. Benz was the inventor), although it became more developed and available under the ingenuity of American factories and markets; Italy gets credit for the radio, although their invention did not transmit speech (An American innovation accomplished that). Russia had some wartime thing like a periscope with a different name.
So, the big question then becomes “WHY?” Why are most
inventions American? By the way, many inventors were foreign born, but did
their big inventing after arriving in the U.S. So, why is that????
Kent State University had a project going via our
international center (The Gerald Read Center for International and Intercultural
Education located in the College of Education, Health and Human Services). They were helping some Turks create a school
in Turkey with an American take on curriculum and some other things. I was one
of the faculty sent over to talk about American education and why creating such
a school might be a good idea.
I used the figure of the Inventions of the 20th Century in my presentation. I left it on the screen long enough for potential parents to digest it. One of them noticed and said aloud, “There is no Muslim based country on the list.” Hmm. Hadn’t thought about that. “There are no developing countries on the list.
Again -the big question….WHY NOT?
Oh, I don’t know how to post the figure here, but I
will try in the 3rd part of this post, “Thinking about the question.”
I always liked this photo my brother took of me at 15. All my journals are displayed on my coffee table.
When I was 15 years old, and a teenager, I felt strongly that grown-ups did not understand me. I resolved to make sure I understood teenagers, and some of the aches of growing up, so that I would be a good teacher and mother someday. So I decided to keep a journal – to remember.
Journaling wasn’t so popular in 1967. It was difficult to find something other than a school notebook to write in. But, in a stationery store, there were blank black books called “records.” The paper was lined, they came in sizes, and so I used my allowance or babysitting money to buy one. We were vacationing in Vermont at the time at a home my parents and grandparents jointly owned. Here is exactly what I wrote back then.
August 24, 1967 (age 15) Stannard, Vermont
This book is my teenage journal. Let the purpose of this book be remembered as a memory of that “precious period of frustration” which we call adolescence. Here I shall record that which I learn as well as that which I treasure. This way, I hope, all that I learn may be permanent.
Today I realized it was important to record this period of my life so that I may never display ignorance to someone I love. Teenagers are a distinct breed. They are all occupied in finding themselves and their way of life. However peculiar this process may seem, it must never be disturbed without marring their future, breeding some resentment.
Too many parents try to live their children’s lives. If I can’t live my own life, and believe me I will, then it is hardly worthwhile. I don’t want to just survive or vegetate. I want to live. I want to fulfill my life with exciting things worth remembering. Parents often blindly deprive their children of learning by doing rather than teaching.
Odd. I wrote this in 1967. Now I am 67 years old. I hardly know the girl who was me. But, I can find her in the pages of the many journals I kept then, and throughout my life (so far).
Traveling is exciting – but it requires some planning. After all, we want to be comfortable away from home. Here, I outline some of my own rules for packing – learned after 50 countries, 22 trips to Europe, 5 to Asia, and lots of places in between (not to mention a thousand conventions and conferences within the United States).
Traveling for business or leisure (or a combined trip) has some things in common and a few differences. I will address as many as I can. NO matter what sort of trip is coming up, one thing that applies to all packing, and is your first critical decision is…shoes.
You will be miserable if your feet hurt. And I would caution against buying any new shoes, unless you are weeks away from departure, and you can really really break them in and ensure they will not give you blisters or worse.
Decide on the right sort of shoes for the trip. They must be comfortable and versatile.
Never travel with ONLY the shoes you are wearing in transit. Something could happen to your shoes. Like stepping in bubble gum on a sidewalk. Like having your feet swell and the shoes become too tight.
Packing a pair of flip-flops is a good idea. You can wear them in the shower if needed, to the pool, as bedroom slippers, or home if suddenly your shoes do not fit (Yup, that happened to me – all the way home from Greece. Good thing it was not winter).
You may need one pair of shoes for a special event, like a reception. Shoes take up lots of space, especially for men, so consider carefully.
Plan your clothes in a color scheme, so mostly everything can go with mostly everything else. Most things in your suitcase should be versatile, with the possible exception of some special outfit for a big event (like if you are accepting an award, or chairing something fancy). Here are some suggestions.
For women – a scheme of black and white with an accent like pink or teal; blue and white with a few red accents.
For men – A palette like navy and khaki; Consider one very nice blazer, in either tan or blue with pants and shirts favoring the other color. Other schemes might be blue and gray, for example, or black and tan.
PLANNING THE WARDROBE
You will need one outfit per activity day -but some items will be used more than once. Then, one way to dress up if needed (especially if it’s unexpected); one way to dress down for exercise or the ride home. If you are gone for more than one week, plan on getting laundry done once per week. All hotels offer laundry services. If you are in an rural eco-setting, pack soap to wash essentials. This keeps your luggage light.
Start with something to sleep in. A raincoat could double as a bathrobe. Flip flops could be slippers.
Always have one extra shirt in case someone spills their wine on you, or a waiter trips and spills fish sauce on your clothing.
If that blazer or sport jacket is leather – it is easily wiped off if something spills. A good investment for traveling.
Women travelers – carrying a wool or pashmina shawl can serve multiple functions. Throw it over your coat for added warmth on a chilly evening; Throw it over yourself on the airplane when the air is too much; it’s available to create an evening wear outfit if needed.
Consider the fabrics in your wardrobe. Many travel fabrics require no ironing. Silk is a wonderful fabric for travelers – men and women. It has minimal wrinkling, can be warm or cool, and dries quickly in a hotel bathroom overnight when needed. It takes up very little room in a suitcase. If purchasing something new in silk, wash it prior to travel to ensure it does not shrink. Travel catalogues like Travelsmith and Magellan offer helpful travel clothing and gear.
Dress for where you are going. Consider the weather, temperature, and customs. For example, in much of Africa, local women never wear pants. In much of Europe, only children wear shorts – not adult men and women.
A lightweight packable tote bag – not just for shopping (many places in the world do not offer plastic or paper bags for shoppers); but for long touring days, it can hold a water bottle, and other things you need with you for the day.
Consider packing one plastic hanger, a length of string or bungy cord, a hand-sized towel.
Anything liquid should be within a zip-lock bag.
Nail clippers could also cut a tag, or piece of tape if needed.
A small roll of duct tape. Your luggage could become damaged in transit. Duct tape will generally help it get home in one piece.
For women especially, don’t pack a suitcase you cannot easily lift. There isn’t always help available.
PLANNING THE PERSONAL ITEMS.
These are different for every individual. What medicines are needed? Toiletries? Makeup? These things will help determine if you are comfortable on your trip.
Medicines – Make sure you have what you need. Any controlled substances need to be in their original containers. Pills – have always 102 extra in case one drops onto a floor, or you are delayed getting home. With any medicine, be sure your supply is ample to accommodate delays.
Traveling Outside the United States? You could be sensitive to local water. In a developing country, water may not be safe for travelers. Ask your primary care provider for a prescription of CIPRO, which you would take if you ingest unsafe water by accident. Ask questions about the water where you are going. Drink bottled water where the cap is still clearly factory sealed.
ALL important items must be stowed in your carry-on bag (which of course may end up under a seat or in an overhead space in transit). Especially medicines. If you are traveling for business, and there’s a presentation in your near future, or meeting, have what you need in your carry-on.
THE CARRY ON BAG
Traveling far? To an remote area? Put one change of underwear and a clean shirt in your carry-on bag, sealed in plastic, perhaps lining the bottom. Luggage can get lost. The farther you go, the better chance of its delay.
Remember to avoid anything prohibited by TSA if traveling by air. Carry a small container of clean water (after you have been through security), snack foods (schedules are subject to delays), anything you need to remain comfortable. I pack a book, a small notebook, pen, hand cream, chap stick, a paper towel or handkerchief (yes, they still make them), tissues, phone, items for entertainment (like ear buds; crosswords). Some frequent travelers always carry a sleep aid, in order to adjust to time changes more quickly (by getting to sleep when it’s time).
Probably you don’t need a full container of most things. Often people buy a new bottle of shampoo for a trip, for example. Unless you bought the little travel size, you probably don’t need that much shampoo. Instead of packing a full container, pack a nearing-empty container, which can be disposed of in transit.
The little zip-loc types bags are available in most pharmacy stories. You may want to pack some just-in-case Tylenol, or Advil, or Melatonin. Or, use these to organize vitamins you take daily. A sharpie pen can write on the plastic. See the photo.
The longer the trip, the more likely delays. Have some food with you. Nuts, granola bars, dried fruit are all good options if they work for your diet needs.
IF you are presenting shortly after you arrive, or have other business responsibilities, everything you need for the meeting or presentation needs to be in that carry-on, such as your laptop, ipad, USB drives (always prepare more than one, they can break after your first presentation when you have four more to go).
Caption: In this picture, note the tiny plastic zip-loc type bags useful for packing small amounts of pills.
THE 3-1-1 BAG
For air travel, the 3-1-1 bag is required for liquids and gels. Check your airline website for details. If you take liquid medicines, like eye drops, that bag can get filled real fast. Often health food markets carry hair shampoo that comes in a bar like regular soap, and therefore does not need to go into that little bag. Any liquids in your luggage should be additionally secured with a plastic bag in case caps fall off.
United States small appliances will probably not work in countries outside North America. Travel sites sell step down chargers/adapters (which convert the power) and outlet plugs with the correct configuration of pins. If you skip the charger, you may ruin your appliance (tablet, razor, hair curler, phone, etc.).
Whatever sort of luggage you select, the same principles apply.
First, anything in packaging takes up more space that the items alone. Foe example, perhaps you bought insoles for the trip, and they are still in the box. Or maybe you bought last minute tylenol, and the bottle is also in a box.
The more structured the container, the more space it uses. Things in pouches that can flatten out are better options.
Plastic bags with baffles can be useful. Some travelers put each outfit, or at least clean shirts in one of these. You lay the garment flat as possible in the bag, which in the case of a dress shirt would be carefully folded to avoid wrinkles. Then, you roll up the bag. The baffle lets out air, making the finished back very flat. See the photo.
Caption: These bags are a good tool for travelers. One photo shows one empty, the other with a shirt inside. They are available in travel stories.
The principle for packing most stuff is the least amount of folds possible. In other words, do NOT fold tops. Fold pants minimally. Lay things in one at a time, folding over a sleeve for example, but keeping most things flat.
There are travelers who believe strongly that rolling items is a better idea. You decide.
Pack your suitcase at LEAST the night before, and stand it up. Gravity will pack things down and give you a bit more space.
It’s not a bad idea to pack the suitcase well in advance, to ensure the things you need fit, then take it apart, and repack it with what you really need.
MONEY, SAFETY, SECURITY
Always have some local cash, especially if you are going far. You may need something right away, like a bottle of water, or a luggage cart, which can only be purchased in the local currency.
Nearly all credit cards work around the world – as long as you inform your card company of your plans. Generally a phone number on back of the card will give you access to the information you need.
Some cards charge still fees for foreign transactions. Check to see if your card does, because you may need a different card for travel.
Caption: Pouches like this with multiple compartments work well for packing jewelry, or dealing with multiple currencies. They use less space that rigid containers.
Always travel with at least two cards in case one is lost, stolen, or stops working. Keep them in two entirely different places. Have your card numbers and those needed phone numbers on the back of the card in a location you can access while you travel. Some folks put all this in an email to themselves.
Cash machines, which go by different names, are available in most areas of the world. Consult your bank to ensure which ones will work prior to departure. You may need to swipe or insert your card to gain access to a money kiosk which is secured behind locked doors. Take out cash before venturing into a remote or rural area where machines are less likely available (such as on an African safari, or exploring the Australian outback).
In transit – especially if you may want to nap, consider carrying money, cards, passport, and anything else critical in a pouch you wear all the time – even tucked inside clothing.
Caption: This money pouch goes around your waste and slips under clothing.
NEVER leave a purse, briefcase, backpack, camera case, or tote bag unattended while you sleep or move around.
Women travelers – NEVER hang your purse on your chair back in a restaurant. Place it at your feet, keeping one handle around a foot, or ankle. Pickpocketing and petty theft are common in some countries.
NEVER leave your purse at the table when you go to a buffet in a restaurant unless you leave it with a trusted person who knows it must be attended carefully. A common tactic among thieves is for a group to enter a restaurant and cause a distraction, and while you are looking to see what’s going on, someone else is collecting purses, wallets, cameras, etc.
Caption: Here are some wearable items to carry valuables around your neck at all times (except when going through Airport security).
HOTELS AND OTHER ACCOMODATIONS
Staying at an interesting hotel is great fun when traveling. Know in advance that credit cards are often charged in advance for a booked stay in most countries outside the United States, even long before departure. Changes in itinerary, such as a delayed flight – you will probably still be charged, and there is nothing you can argue about. Never use a debit card for a hotel booking, as the card will cease to work until after your departure.
Two-star properties (**) are often a good value. They maybe family owned, quaint, and less expensive. Travel memberships, such as Best Western, Choice, Starwood, Hilton Honors can assist you in making bookings and, when it’s time, to use your bonus points.
Bed and Breakfast Inns are often a delight, with quaint accommodations and helpful innkeepers. When choosing alternate accommodations such as “Home Away” or “AirB&B” it is important to keep in mind you may have little or no contact with anyone in hospitality – no one to make recommendations, help you know where to go, where not to go, help with your return flights, assistance if you lose your purse, luggage, or are the victim of a crime like pickpocketing.
Airbnb is an option. However, no hospitality services accompany many properties. So you may not have any help finding your way around, making further bookings, communicating with your airline, etc.
TRAIN and BUS TRAVEL
Train and bus travel are sometimes a better value than air travel between countries. Europe, for example, observes First and Second class distinctions and prices on trains. Be sure you know in advance what countries your train crosses, as some stop trains and demand additional fares in cash from travelers. The cleanliness and condition of land travel transportation in various countries can be different. Guide books and sites can inform you in advance of what you need to know.
Taxi service varies greatly around the world. Much of it is unmetered. In other words, you don’t know how much the ride costs until you arrive at your destination. Consider asking your hotel for help calling a taxi, finding out the exact price in advance, and have exact cash prepared. Many taxis around the world do not have the capability to take credit cards and other online entities, such as Venmo.
One common Taxi scam if, for example, you give the driver a $20 (or equivalent in local currency, for them to hide the $20 and claim you only gave them a $10 (which they have conveniently handy). If you suspect a driver, take a photo of the driver and the license tag as you depart the vehicle. Some countries have tourist police dedicated to keeping visitors safe.
Know Before You Go!!
EATING AND DRINKING
Sampling local foods is a joyful part of traveling. Be thoughtful about what you put in your mouth. Lower GI distress has ruined many a vacation or business trip.
If water locally is unsafe, eat things like soft boiled eggs rather than scrambled (they may have added water); bottled wine or soda or beer; well cooked meats. Do NOT order drinks with ice cubes, mixed cocktails, or salad (it was washed in local water). Cooked veggies are probably all right. Always ask if the water is safe for brushing your teeth. In a city like St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, the mass graves from World War II have leeched into the water supply, making the water non-potable for teeth or anything on your face, but suitable for showering (if you can keep water out of your eyes and mouth).
Hot coffee and hot tea are generally safe.
Consult a guidebook to find out about tipping is restaurants. In Australia, for example, servers earn real wages and are not supported by any tips. In other countries where tips may be expected, they must be cash and not added to a credit card.
Once you’re out of a big city, vendors and hotel workers may speak little or no English. Be careful ordering, and never assume something where you are is the same as back home.
Example 1 – I was eating at a nice restaurant in Cape Town South Africa and a teacher friend ordered Ostrich steak. She didn’t like it, so asked for something else. She was shocked when she was charged for both meals. The server pointed out she had eaten some of it, and they could not resell the ostrich steak. She had to pay for it. Another person at the table requested A-1 steak sauce with her steak. The server had no idea what she was talking about.
Example 2 -In a small danish village, the menu was arranged by numbers, and each number was a complete three course meal – no mixing and matching. My co-traveler wanted the broccoli from Number 1, the meat from number 2, the dessert from number 3 and something else from meal number 4. If it was even an option to mix and match, certainly the server knew little or no English and my dear friends was brought all four complete meals. The table wasn’t even big enough for all four plates (and I had already ordered just a single meal). We still laugh about this today. It was an expensive lesson because, of course, she had to pay for all of them.
I cannot express my surprise the first time I went into a public restroom (I was in Singapore) and opened the door of the cubicle, and there was nothing but a hole in the floor. So you don’t feel like an idiot, the protocol is you stoop over the hole, facing the door. Paper is sometimes provided. Hard on knees!
It’s a great idea to always carry tissues or a partial roll of toilet paper wherever you go. In many places, rest rooms have an attendant, and you are expected to put some local coins into a dish on the sink. Still other places (like Thailand, for example), you purchase a small wad of toilet paper prior to entering the cubicle.
Some public restrooms will have one cubicle with a traditional toilet, if you know to look. There may even be a picture of a toilet on a door.
Carrying hand sanitizer is another good idea. Soap may or may not be available.
I have often thought a great title for a travel book would be “Fifty Ways to Flush a Toilet.” You may have to really look around to find how to flush. It could be something above you, on the floor (something to step on), behind the toilet – anywhere. Or, in a rural area, it might be a scoop and a pail of water.
This topic is enough for a course. I strongly recommend consulting and reading a guidebook before you travel. Often, guidebooks are available to download to your kindle app on your phone.
One thing I will mention is especially for unmarried women traveling without a male partner. Marriage is so strong in many cultures that single women make no sense to local people – especially in African countries, Middle Eastern countries, and anywhere where the Muslim faith is dominant.
Ladies, consider going to an estate jeweler and purchase yourself a simple wedding ring and wear it during travel depending on where you are going. I do not think men need to be concerned with this.
Other customs to read about in advance: tipping, restaurant manners and protocols (such as you may never be handed a bill for your dinner until you request it).
Be a humble traveler. Never talk down to local people. They will notice. Never act like you are better than anyone else because maybe you have more money than local folks. Treat everyone you meet with respect. Don’t be surprise if they know immediately where you are from. Clothes, shoes, jewelry, and even smiling are all cues to locations (Lots of folks are not smiley, which may have to do with the condition of their teeth, or just what is locally normal).
Be careful what you do with your hands in a foreign country. Giving a thumbs up, for example, may be something sexual. Observe what local people do.
Caption: This gesture in the US means “okay.” In Turkey, it means you are a gay man looking for a partner, according to one informant.
Jewelry, scarves, bookmarks, throw pillow covers, table linens are all very packable for the trip home. If you intend to buy art, consider packing a collapsible art tube. Most things can be shipped home of course. Something breakable? Either pack it separately and carry it on, or embed it in your own clothing for the journey home. A decorative plate or tray can be slipped about in the middle of your suitcase so it is cushioned from the top and bottom.
In countries selling carpets, I have been informed the carpets are considered art and are not dutiable. Check with locals to find out what is considered art, and what is not dutiable.
On the return from a long trip, I make a list on paper, such as in a travel journal or on your phone, of all my purchases with approximate prices (because they may have been purchased in a different currency). Save receipts from a larger purchase, such as gold jewelry. I think overall, it’s a good idea to be honest with the customs desk when you return home.
Once I brought home a great deal of books. I explained to the customs agent they were for educational purposes, he waived the duty.
When you read this, you may want to share some travel anecdotes on the comments. Please feel free. I will love reading them.
The last week of June, 2006 was one of excruciating ups and downs. My brother Tom and I were waiting for our mother to die. Nurses said it wouldn’t be long. Meanwhile Tom, his wife and the entire family were also expecting the birth of their first grandchild – a girl.
Mom died the 22nd of June. Local law required a wait of 5 days for cremation. So, on June 27, we got the call at 10:15 am that the cremation was complete, and to come and collect the ashes. Around 10:30, everyone got the call that Paige Elizabeth had been born.
“I wonder,” I said to myself, “if they passed each other in the light, in the space between life and death?” Days later, my sister-in-law organized a get together in remembrance of Mom. My job was to transport our frail and deeply grieving father to the event. On one side of the room, a laptop showed pictures of Mom’s life. On the other side, another laptop showed first pictures of a birth. We sat Dad down and put his first great grandchild in his arms. It gave him a brief recess in his grief, and perhaps the last time we saw him smile.
Once the dust settled, I made an appointment with my favorite medium, Cynthia. I’d been out of town when Mom had passed. So I really hadn’t said goodbye. I hoped to reach her through Cynthia, the same medium who had predicted a girl was coming to the family long before the parents made an announcement.
I had another question for Cynthia. Since Mom never met her great granddaughter, I bought a lovely red leather box, and put in it some things for Paige that belonged to her great grandmother. A sort of time capsule. I made Dad write something to put in the box, as he liked to write, and he needed things to do to get his mind off his grief. I found one of Mom’s music boxes she’d collected, and put it in the box. Mom loved Madame Alexander dolls, and I’d bought her the one named “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” because her name was Mary. That went into the box. I was struggling with what else to put in the box, which would be put away until Paige’s 16th birthday.
On the day of my session, according to Cynthia, Mom appeared to her immediately after an opening prayer, like she’d been expecting me. Her presence made me grab a wad of tissues. I told her about the box, and what would she’d like to have in it. Cynthia said she began talking so fast, it was hard to hear.
“She’s saying something about pearls, or a pearl, does this make sense to you?”
“Oh yes, I know exactly what she is talking about.”
No one living knows that my mother gave me her strand of graduated pearls on my 16th birthday. They had been a gift to her, from her oldest brother in 1934, who by then was a working adult, and who indulged his only sister, for her 16th birthday.
As soon as I got home, I took the pearls to a jeweler to be restrung and cleaned. I put them into the box. The box is hidden in a closet in Paige’s home. On June 27, 2022, Paige will turn 16. She will get the box from her Great Grandmother, and I hope to be there.
Wendy C. Kasten
P.S. July 3, 2022
Last Monday, Paige turned 16. In order to be there, I had to board a god-awful early plane from Portland, Maine to Baltimore, rent a car, and rent a room. But last Monday on the 27th, we gathered family at a favorite family restaurant. Some of us were with Paige Saturday evening, June 25th, which her Dad, Peter decided was a better atmosphere to open the box. Paige seemed pleased. And for her birthday dinner on June 27, she wore the pearls. I gave her a photograph of her Great Grandmother Mary taken when Mary was in high school – wearing the pearls.
In the mid 90’s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Kent State University, where I taught, began getting cohorts of students from former Soviet countries. They were all on Soros Scholarships doing advanced degrees in leadership. I was host and mentor to a vibrant, middle-aged wiry man named Valeriy. Val was born and raised in the Ukraine but spoke and identified as Russian. He characterized the change – with the fall of the Soviet Union – as an identity crisis. “I had to stop thinking of myself as Russian. I am Ukrainian.”
Val’s first challenge landing in the U.S. was how many choices he had to make. When he arrived, I took him to TJ Maxx to buy himself a coat. He was overwhelmed there were so many to choose from. When he found one he liked, it turned out to be reversible, and he stood in front of the mirror in the men’s department giggling with delight. “People back home will think I have TWO coats,” he declared.
Val also wanted to buy a camera, so we went to Wal-Mart. Again, he could not wrap his mind around making choices from many different makes and models. The final selection came down to which camera used batteries that would be available back home. Same scenario at the shoe store getting him boots. Then gloves. Then a hat. It was exhausting.
I suggested we grab dinner. We sat in a booth and were handed a twelve-page menu. His head started spinning again. “Order me something, please.” So, I did, but then the server asked him if he wanted baked, mashed or fries (and he didn’t know she was talking about potatoes); then she recited five different salad dressings and asked his preference. Again, he had no idea of what she was talking about. “Give him ranch,” I said to the server.
But, after all this, it was especially telling on another day when we went to a bookstore. It was Border’s books then – a large spacious store with two stories, an escalator, a café, and many, many books.
When we walked through the entrance, he stopped in his tracks, looked all around, and then burst into tears, covering his mouth, aghast. Val had never seen so many books.
“Is it allowed to touch them?” He asked me.
“Yes, of course,” I said.
“Can you bring me back here soon and leave me here for the whole day?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to take in the enormity of what his tears meant.
Val also liked going with me to Sam’s Club.
In the store’s book aisle, we passed boxes of encyclopedias for $20 per set. Val stopped to examine them like rare jewels. “I need to buy these,” he was emphatic.
“Val, the reason they are so cheap is that now everyone uses digital references. They’re out-of-date,” I said.
“Yes, but where I live in Ukraine, these would be very helpful.” I talked him out of buying them.
But, he called the next day. He begged me to take him back to Sam’s club so he could buy three sets of encyclopedias, and soon – before they might be gone. Two classmates from Soviet countries also wanted them desperately. We went. He bought.
One really big deal at Kent State University is the liquid crystal institute which hosts meetings with scientists from around the world. When Val heard of an upcoming event, he volunteered to be a translator. Three Russian scientists attended. Val invited those scientists to his dorm room, where he served some drinks and snacks, keen on the opportunity to make them feel welcome. The three scientists saw the three boxes of encyclopedias in Val’s room and begged to buy them from him. He relented.
Val called me the next day to share all this and express his urgent need to get back to Sam’s club to buy more sets of encyclopedias. We went. He bought more. He was ecstatic.
During Val’s academic year in Ohio, he had an opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. Upon his return, he was eager to share with me two entire rolls of photographs of the “Voice of America” building. There’s nothing at all special about the “Voice of America” building – architecturally, that is. Except what it meant to him.
He explained that he began listening to it in secret to the Voice of America when he was 17. He’d asked a teacher if this was allowed. The teacher did not answer the question. His response was evasive. So, he felt he understood that the teacher was in a delicate position, and could not make a recommendation.
In sharing the photos, he extolled – as if testifying to me, about the role of this radio station in the demise of the Soviet Union. He tuned in and came to understand things – things different from the information being doled out on official Soviet stations. He said all his friends began listening, without sharing with adults, what they were doing.
In his opinion, the Voice of America and the Chernobyl nuclear accident were the two biggest things that toppled the U.S.S.R. “It had been a beautiful day – the day of the accident. People were enjoying the out-of-doors. But suddenly on all television and radio stations, there was no programming – except the playing of classical music.” People wondered what was wrong. He went on to explain when they learned of the accident, they also learned the leaders of the Communist Party had evacuated all their own families to places far away from the radioactive area. That single self-serving act broke the back of the rhetoric that the government cared about its people. There was no way to spin that selective evacuation into something good for all Russians.
Going back to his trip to Washington, D.C. he could not get over that he was allowed to tour the U.S. Capitol buildings as a foreigner, and that Congress was in session, and he was allowed to sit in the balcony, and nothing was being conducted in secret, behind closed doors.
Val’s academic year ended in May, and the Soros scholars prepared to go home. But Val didn’t show up for the ride to the airport. He went missing. This sort of thing happens regularly with foreign students. But no one knew where Val was. Perhaps others in the cohort knew but would not say.
Weeks later, Val telephoned. I was surprised and relieved to hear his voice. “Why are you overstaying your visa, Val?”
“I wasn’t ready to go,” he explained simply.
“What are you doing? No classes are in session.” I probed.
“Oh, I’m staying with a friend, and every day I go to the library, and I read.”
“This is what you have been doing for weeks?” I probed again.
“Yes,” he admitted. “There are so many books I want to read.”
This is where I was forced to explain that he’d put me in an awkward position. As a state employee at a public institution, I really could not condone his overstaying his visa.
“But call me when you need a ride to the airport. Not until then.” I concluded.
As a Professor of Reading, and a book lover, I could not fault his zest for books – and his desire to make up for what learning had been denied to him at home.
It was not a sweet ending to our friendship, however. Still, I am thinking about him now, every day, wondering where he is, and if he’s safe.
Val, if you ever hear this, I hope you know I am thinking of you.
Another Sunday dinner is over – just the two of us. My 90-year old father shuffles down my hallway, then struggles with his jacket and zipper. He picks up the sack I have stuffed with leftovers for his Monday meal, dons his frayed Dutch cap, reaches for his cane, and gingerly totters to his car, every movement in slow motion. With Mom now in a nursing home, this is the best I can do, trying to make his life more normal.
Each morning he gets up at his independent-living apartment, and makes his way to the social café for the breakfast buffet. Every morning, he has his oatmeal, orange juice and coffee. Then he gets into his car in the underground parking garage, just to drive the thirty yards across the parking lot to the nursing home. Then he finds her, his wife, my mother, somewhere in the hallways. Her soft skin jiggles a little as she smiles at the sight of him. My mother’s crisp white hair bounces as she tries to remember how to back up and sit down in a chair. Then they sit together in one of the lounges, doing nothing in particular. He sits with her until they call her to lunch.
Two people come to help her get up. She leans into the walker, takes baby steps, and creeps to the dining room, her oversized pants pulled a bit too high, belying the plastic padding beneath. She says almost nothing, and nothing she says makes any sense. “That is…” and the rest of the phrase is stuck somewhere inside the crumbling mind. “I’m worried…” and she cannot find the other words. “Sometimes you just…” and the remainder is never uttered. Sometimes I try to help her. “You just what, Mom?” “What is it you are worried about?” But no amount of effort can lasso the elusive, the lost.
Dad rises and escorts her to the dining room, and then leaves to go find some lunch for himself. Mostly, he ends up at the Senior Citizen Center where lunch is only a dollar. Dad has always loved a bargain. But the center is not open on weekends. He hates eating alone and so sometimes he just doesn’t bother. Afterwards, he might stop at Walgreens for one of their many prescriptions, or a stop at Urgent Care to have his Coumadin levels checked. Then, Dad returns to the nursing home.
Once again, he finds my mother, sitting or wandering, or sometimes napping in someone else’s bed. Again, he sits with her, or walks with her up and down the hallway. These rituals last until dinnertime, when the staff again call Mom to eat, and Dad goes back to his apartment to fend for himself and read the newspaper.
Tomorrow will be a carbon copy of this.
Another Valentine’s Day has arrived. This February 14th, Mom is in a hospital bed, coughing for her life with double pneumonia. I’d brought her some chocolate, which normally she loves. But in this condition, she’s hasn’t eaten anything much for days. Dad and I are standing at her bed, and she’s so deeply asleep, we decide not to disturb her.
I know for each of the last 64 years, Dad has written Mom a love poem for Valentine’s Day and also their wedding anniversary in June. I don’t ask what he’s written about, or where this year’s poem is. But suddenly it dawns on me that there are at least 130 poems. Love poems to my mother.
“Dad, where are all the poems you wrote for Mom?” He shrugs his shoulders looking quizzical.
“I gave them to her,” he says with resignation. The thought of more than a hundred love poems either hidden or lost troubles me. We discuss cleaning out her things still at the apartment and trying to find them.
On a subsequent evening, I go to Dad’s apartment to start cleaning. Dad has never lived alone, and his housekeeping is dreadful. So, fist I stop in the little apartment kitchen where I collect used yellowed paper napkins, polystyrene cups, and plates that are encrusted with old food, I deposit them in the trash, amidst his admonitions of “Hey, those could be used again.” Or, “That’s still good, I can eat it tomorrow.” I fear he will accidentally kill himself eating spoiled food on unclean styrofoam. Dad’s entire generation never recovered from the great depression. Wasting anything is a sin. I ignore his rants and I make my way to Mom’s drawers.
First, the four drawers of Mom’s jewelry chest. I pull out the top one, set it on my lap as I sit on the edge of their bed with a large trash can poised nearby. What I find instead of jewelry are lots and lots of rusting hairpins staining the velveteen lining; an assortment of toothpicks; an occasional button or penny; old clothing tags with the price still almost visible; name tags from the “Sun and Fun” RV Resort Park in Sarasota, Florida; used up pencils and a crochet hook. The one gem I find is Dad’s U.S. Navy dog tags from the War. He smiles at the sight of them, as he hasn’t seen them for years.
I do this for each of the four drawers, and I find an occasional single earring back, a broken gaudy pendant, a plastic turquoise necklace. But somewhere stashed in one corner of one of the bottom drawer I find four of the love poems, brittle, torn, and mended with yellowing tape. I stop and read them. One of them is titled “May it Never End.”
I’ve said it very many times,
In many ways throughout the years,
Whether straight or set in rhymes,
Whether in laughter or through tears.
It’s been at night and during days,
So it may not sound very new,
Still I do not know other ways,
To once again say “I love you.”
A couple of hours of this type of searching yields a few more poems, some glued to the inside of an old greeting cards. Some are on a scrap of notebook paper, or an index card. Some are typed on an old Underwood typewriter.
I searched for her throughout the world wide,
Crossing each continent from side to side.
Hoping that somewhere and someday I’d find,
The special girl who’d be loving and kind.
Failing I gave up nevermore to roam
To find my Valentine waiting at home.
A corner of the paper is ripped off on this one, so I don’t know the date, but I am guessing it was soon after the War. We are still only up to twenty poems. Over a hundred more to find.
Scouring her dresser drawers yields a few more poems. These, hidden in an old purse, among a dozen pair of pantyhose all with runs, and among the now sticky decomposing nylon prosthesis Mom was supposed to wear where her left breast used to be. Even back then, she said it was too hot and too uncomfortable. “I’m over 70,” she’d said more than a few times after the cancer surgery. “What do I need two breasts for?” When she wanted a left breast on occasions, she’d stuffed her empty bra cup with tissues, fabric, or a sock.
I think back to the last time, in earlier stages of Alzheimers, that I dressed them up for dancing. Dad had bought tickets to a big ballroom dancing event on the campus where I taught. Dad was in the designer second-hand suit that a friend had given him. This was the nicest most dashing suit Dad ever owned.
Mom wore the frilly pink organza dress, also second hand she’d been given by a friend in the ballroom dancing club. My parents got dressed at my house, and I helped Mom with her pantyhose and the buckles on her silver dancing shoes. I had insisted she wear her prosthesis for this event, and so we had spent some time in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to ensure that the fake breast was aligned with the real one, and not four inches higher. We never got it quite perfect, but close enough. I took a snapshot of them that night, together in front of the closed draperies of my patio slider door, like two excited teens poised for their senior prom.
Following Easter weekend, Mom had rebounded from pneumonia, but with a decreased quality of life. Dad and I decided to move her to a different nursing home where there might be a higher level of care. Where her face used to brighten with the sight of us, there’s was almost no reaction now. Yet, in the midst of her decline, there were mysterious moments of lucidness. I never knew what brought them on, but we both lived for them. The day we were settling her into the new surroundings, she turned and looked at Dad as he was leaving and said, “You know, I have never stopped loving you.”
During all this searching, we’d found a wonderful old photo of Mom. The photo was damaged, but it was of a seventeen-year-old, beautiful dark-eyed woman, hair curled around her face, and printed in an oval of light like the “Breck Girl” on the back of the old McCall’s magazines. My brother Tom visited that weekend. He had taken the photo home, scanned it, doctored it, and sent it by attachment back to me. I printed it and gave it to Dad. A tear slipped out of his left eye.
“She really was beautiful back then,” he said as if he needed to convince me.
Another evening, I stop at Dad’s and continue my search for the poems. Even though I knock before I enter, he’s stretched out on his sofa, a crumbled paper napkin from Subway in his hand. He’s been listening to audio tapes of their old dance music. I tell him I’ve got a little time to do some more cleaning of Mom’s things. That perks him up.
I start cleaning out Mom’s nightstand drawers. This time an entire drawer is devoted to over stretched out headbands in a variety of widths and colors. I find one poem on yellowed typing paper. It’s dated 1986.
To My Wife
Now that life is in its downward journey,
When my day of living lies in the past,
I’ll be happy living in memory,
Because you’ve given me love till the last.
I’ll remember your smile and things you said,
I never forget your traits, both bad and good,
I see you laugh with a toss of your head,
As you teasingly in the doorway stood.
Shadows will flee as I think of your smile,
My thoughts will find cheer in the years we spent,
My dreams will travel along every mile,
Lingering on where together we went.
Though material wealth was not my own,
You brought me richness with the love I’ve known.
Pausing to take it all in, I swipe a tear on my cheek. Then I find a good sweater that shouldn’t be in the drawer. So, I go and hang it in the walk-in closet. Mom’s side of the closet is getting empty, as I have been getting rid of clothing she will never need in a nursing home.
The frilly pink organza dress hangs at the end of the row all by itself. The last time Mom wore it, almost three years ago, was at her Grandson Peter’s wedding. This wedding was elegant, in a fine hotel. Dad dressed in the same dashing suit, and Mom in her pink dress they’d worn to the ballroom dancing gala seven years earlier.
While Mom had absolutely no idea who was getting married, she could tell from the setting it was a wedding, and commented how lovely it all was.
“They tell me you are my grandson,” she’d said re-meeting her grandson Peter at the reception.
“Of course, I am, Grandma,” he’d replied in good humor, giving her a hug.
We were at one of the biggest family events in decades and no one had remembered to bring a camera So, earlier in the day I had gone shopping and bought my first digital camera. Throughout the day, I was desperately reading directions, learning how to use it. Once we got to the reception, I kept it handy at my table.
At one point, the band did a cute number and had all married couples get up to dance. As each segment of the song passed, the bandleader would announce to have all the couples married less than 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and so on to sit down. As the crowd was mostly young, I could see where this was going.
And so it went. Soon Mom and Dad were alone on the dance floor. All eyes were upon them, the lights were dimmed, with the glittery ball spinning above them made prisms flit around the floor. Dad forgot his aching knees, and led Mom in a waltz. Mom could follow Dad. They smiled and swirled and dazzled the crowd. At the end, the bandleader presented Mom with a nosegay of flowers. She had no idea why someone was giving her flowers but thought they were very lovely. Dad beamed radiantly. I took the picture.
I returned to the nightstand and cleared out the last of the garbage. A few dozen pens that didn’t write. More hairpins, rollers, dirty tissues, rusty paper clips, safety pins, an occasional name tag, receipt, and a brochure. In this session, I only found a single poem in a faded pink satin cosmetic bag.
My love is yours through good and bad
It’s with you when you’re glad or sad.
A truer love will never be,
As everyone can plainly see.
Our love has stood the test of time,
For I am yours and you are mine.
When all the drawers were cleaned out, there were still a hundred poems to go. I wondered where to search next.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep feeding Dad on Sundays. I’ll keep visiting my mother, watching her walk back and forth in the hallways with no destination. Dad will keep sitting in the nursing home with her for hours at a time. Until the next crisis when the next infection appears, or until the coughing resumes and we’ll go through all of this again, not knowing each time if we should be saying our goodbyes. Each time as I’m leaving, I kiss her cheek, and tell her to sleep well, and to remember she has a family who all love her.
Mom passed first in 2006 at age 89. Dad was in poor shape with a heart barely pumping. His doctors had instructed us to take away his car keys. He learned to get around his neighborhood on a scooter. But, he was in agony without her, especially when Valentine’s Day came around. I think he didn’t know how to cope with their special holiday alone. So, he wrote Mom a poem, addressed the envelope to her, but sent it to my home address.
When I took in the mail that afternoon, an envelope addressed to my mother in my father’s handwriting made little sense. I sat down and stared at it for a few moments before I could bring myself to open it. There was just this inside:
You finally left this earth missing me,
To me, you and I shall remain just we.
Dying is a part of living and life,
Through all eternity you’re still my wife.
In all and everything I do each day,
Our togetherness will forever stay.
Dad passed a few months later. I only ever found 29 poems. His final request was that their ashes be mixed together and scattered in Vermont, where their married life had started. Tom and I fulfilled their wish the following summer. My brother read the last poem at our little ceremony. A fitting end to a very long love story.
Vermont was a sanctuary for Tom and me. After all, where we lived in New Jersey, you could not swing a bat to play ball without breaking someone’s window. So the coming of summer was full of eager anticipation. Space. In contrast to houses so close you could talk to neighbor’s without using the phone, Vermont had space. Behind the mid-19th century cape Dad and Grandpa had jointly purchased were acres of fields, a brook, woods, and so many possibilities.
But our Vermont world also provided new challenges during those years in the 60’s (I was about 12, Tom about 15. Water had to pulled up from a well with pails that were weighted on one side to dip into the clear chilly water. The sink in the cooking kitchen was dry. No faucet. Except of course when you sent dirty water down the drain. Someone had added an electric stove to the kitchen (Mom was relieved). But clearly the eating kitchen had once been the cooking kitchen, because the big black woodstove was not only a heat source. We learned to add wood to the fire box. Set kettles on the round disk burners for tea. Watch a needle on the oven door to see if it was hot enough to bake a pie. Mom was not excited to meet the wood stove. But Grandma had found an old and familiar friend, and she baked a raspberry pie just to test its prowess.
That’s the other thing about Vermont. In summer, we all lived like an extended family. The four of us, and our paternal grandparents. Otherwise, grandparents were people who came to tea on Sunday, and were at our dinner table for every birthday, holiday, and sometimes just because. Grandma was the bringer of plum cakes, eclairs, Boston Cream pie, Jan Hagels, and raisin cake. Grandpa , well, what we soon came to realize in Vermont is that we hadn’t known Grandpa very well. Not really.
Stannard, Vermont, in the Northeast Kingdom at that time did not get television reception. Radio reception was scratchy and annoying. It was said you could get a phone, but it would have been a 16 party line, and not often available. So Dad decided we didn’t need one.
The house was well stocked with decks of cards, scrabble and monopoly for evenings. We wrote letters to friends back in Jersey. We read books. We’d soon run out of the books we brought along. The one breadbox of toys we were each allowed in the over-stuffed station wagon served us well. I sewed doll clothes with the 1875 Singer Treadle machine we’d gotten at a church auction for $2.50. That is, after Grandma taught me how to use it. In nice weather, Tom and I would be outside on our land. A brook provided hours of entertainment, tramping around soggy ground in rubber boots from the Army-Navy store in St. Johnsbury. We’d try to build dams to make a place for ourselves to swim. However, once we realized how naturally frigid the Vermont water temperature are, we abandoned our quest.
Nonetheless, sometimes, especially on a rainy days, Tom and I got bored.
Houses in the country have problems. Mice, for example. On one of those first trips to the hardware store in Hardwick, Dad and Grandpa stocked up on wooden mouse traps. Grandpa, as we were learning, was often cranky. And he dwelled on problems. The mice were one of those problems worthy of dwelling. He set mouse traps under the kitchen wood stove, behind the Round Oak pot belly stove in the living room, and under the ugly oak hutch with the built in mirror. Any place he thought mice might go. Dad moved some of them that our cat might trigger by accident. Grandpa had no understanding, sympathy, or adoration for cats.
Tom and I conspired on one way to annoy Grandpa. Our reasoning was, if Grandpa was so worried about mice, we should help him out – give him something to worry about. In a way, we reasoned, we were being helpful.
First we found a roll of black thread in the drawers of that old sewing machine. The area carpet in the living room was all creepy dark colors – blacks and browns. Black thread was well camouflaged on that carpet. Grandpa had to walk by the Round Oak stove in the living room to get to his little bedroom on the other side. Tom and I strung black thread across the carpet. One end was tied to trigger a mousetrap.
As was predictable, Grandpa shuffled across the living room to his bedroom. Snap went the mouse trap! Grandpa stopped and looked around, and wondered where the mouse was. He was all excited about finally catching one. He peeked under the stove. He was crestfallen that there was nothing in the trap. “Must have gotten away,” he mumbled. Then he headed back towards his room, stopping to yank a piece of black thread from his shoes. He didn’t connect the two things (We didn’t get our brains from Grandpa’s side of the family). We, of course, were snickering beyond control around the corner in the next room. Mom and Grandma wanted to know what was so funny. After some thought, we told them. They just laughed with us. They did recommend we stop doing it, however. As I recall, we did not immediately take their advice. Tom was good at coming up with other ways to annoy Grandpa.
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.
(taken from a letter I wrote to my Grandmother while she was in hospice in 1979)
As I recall, the nights were always bitter cold on our noses and cheeks. I guess I wasn’t really dressed for the New Jersey weather in my Christmas party dress and black patent leather shoes. I don’t know for sure that they were always black patent leather, but that image sticks with me. Hats, mittens, and scarves were tucked around me, probably around Tom, too, as we hopped, danced, and paced up and down the sidewalk on Clinton Avenue in front of our house. Sometimes we were on cement, sometimes on ice and snow. The basic scene was always the same.
In back of us were lights around the door. Dad had made a frame to hold those larger size multi-colored outdoor lights. Bubble lights in a sort of candelabra showed in one window, to one side of the door. A gaudy lighted plastic Santa face graced the window to the other side of the door. Any number of yellow-bulb candelabras filled the rest of the porch windows which faced the street.
In front of us, cars whizzed by on Third Street to our side, and now and then an occasional car wandered up or down Clinton. Mostly, we were anxious, eager, and time seemed endless as we waited and waited for what seemed like forever for the car that brought you and Grandpa (and sometimes other relatives) so that Christmas could begin.
It took both of you forever to get out of the car and into the house. In – past the porch with all the lighted decorations. In – past the foyer door which each year I had painted holiday designs on the glass with my tempera poster paints. Into the foyer where the top of my piano had some sparkly flossy covering with various decorations on it. Mistletoe balls hung in the archway between the foyer and the living room. Wooden, red-painted reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh ran up the bannister, which on the foyer side, held our Christmas stockings.
Christmas cards would hang everywhere – there were so many. Some would be poised on top of my upright piano. Others – the kind with the top fold – were strung on a string across the archway. Others might be scotch taped to the trim around doors and windows.
You always took such a long time to get settled. First, you went into the kitchen at the back of the house. There, you deposited a pile of friars made of specalaas. Each set on cardboard, wrapped in foil. When opened, the one for me was a Dutch Boy. The one for Tom, a Dutch girl. Raisins and currents made eyes, buttons, mouths and noses. Careful lines with a sharp knife drew on the costume details – the Dutch caps, necklines, and for the girl cookie, stripes on her skirt. The arms of the cookie were always with hands on hips – the space to define the arm carefully cut out from the body. Once, Tom complained about this, as the cut-out section meant he lost some valuable cookie. The next year, Tom got a big rectangular blob from you with a face. He was more concerned about the cookie amount than your artistry.
Next you deposited multiple loaves of Christmas bread also carefully wrapped in foil. Something in between white bread and fruit cake, your Christmas bread would get served later in the evening, slathered in butter.
Meanwhile, Grandpa wandered into the house with two or more department store shopping bags, laden with gifts. He would put them under the tree, or let Tom and me do it. Then everybody – all the grown-ups that is – would remark on how many presents there were, and then make some ridiculous chatter about how we should just leave them all there until next year. Tom and I were not pleased at such comments. The harder Tom and I tried to get the ball rolling, the more the grown-ups procrastinated with idle and meaningless talk. Someone would say, the later we start, the longer it will last. But the waiting was painful torture for me and Tom.
Of course, we were already scanning the size and shape of packages bearing our name on the cute red tags. We knew right away which ones were heavy, or rattled, or made no sound at all. Boxes that were more cube shaped were more likely to be toys. Flat boxes were more likely to be clothes, which was less exciting. One box always had new pajamas, which we needed anyway. Long narrow boxes could be dolls! That was the moment I waited for. And it there was a new doll, there was also, farther under the tree, a box of hand-made clothes for the doll. Mom would have sewn up a storm making the doll, pants, a jacket, a dress. You had used leftover yarns to knit scarves, sweaters, skirts, and tams for the doll. And it was glorious.
This Christmas has been very nice. My best friend – Martha, with her little girl Laura – and I went to the Christmas Eve service at the Universalist Church in Bangor. This candlelight service in a historic building began with the young minster saying that many of us had come here in search of Christmas. But, he said, you will not find it here, because each of us must find it for ourselves. The children sang a carol. The choir did a The Hallelujah Chorus. A young boy with a delicate golden voice sang “Whose Child is this?”
Everyone moved from pews to a circle around the entire sanctuary for candle lighting, with which everyone sang “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” by candlelight as we all filed out and headed home in the wintery ice and snow.
Here’s wishing you the very special feeling of Christmas.
Before there was Zoom, Microsoft teams, Go-to-meeting, Webinars, and all these exciting new tools which enable remote experiences, there was (and is) Australia – a country of large, wide spaces, very long distances between people. Some Australian ranches are larger than some U.S. States. Families live on them, and often, children are raised in these settings. Australia has been practicing distance learning long before Covid-19 came along. While I lived in Australia, I learned much about how they operate. In these models, there are ideas to meet our new demands of teaching children who may not be able to physically come to school.
In earlier times, when these far-away homes had children, instruction was accomplished with two tools – the two way radio, and the mail (and sometimes materials were delivered by airplane). Periodic packets arrived. Some learning was self-directed. Other learning required adult assistance. But a key element was the appointment each child had individually with their teacher – sometimes once every two weeks for about 30 minutes. For ranches (and actually they don’t call them ranches, but you get the idea) without electricity to the outside world, those two way radios were run by someone pedaling them.
Even when I lived in Australia in 1992, distance learning was alive and well. University (called “uni’s in local lingo) researchers were beginning to add some computer instruction in instances where families had desktop computers, and fax machines which enabled assignments and feedback to reach students more quickly than only through mail.
One of my university classes I was assigned to teach was a distance learning class (through the Burwood Campus of Deakin University). An office at the campus was dedicated to assisting with distance learning. I would prepare the packet of instructional materials for teachers seeking an advanced diploma. Those were mailed. My teacher ed students returned assignments by mail, which arrived to the distance learning office, and where I would go and collect them.
Three times during one term, teachers met in person with me for an entire Saturday. For them, it meant a long drive. A location was selected that suited most. Others had to come Friday evening and book a hotel room, and maybe stayed Saturday night as well. Each teacher had to pack all their own food, as there were no food services in even the semi-remote location where Saturday classes were held. These sessions were enjoyable, social, and packed with learning to make the most of the opportunity.
All in all, you could say these “Uni” classes were a hybrid model. They mixed remote and in-person learning.
Not all students in rural Maine have computers and internet. But they probably get mail and have telephones. Maybe even facetime, or skype, or facebook messenger on a family telephone.
Throughout this pandemic, people the world over have had to get creative and resourceful and consider other ways of doing things. That’s been one of the redeeming qualities of an otherwise dismal period of time for businesses and education. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this crisis will not be over until we are all vaccinated against this dangerous organism in our midst. SO we need to continue to innovate to do what we need to do, and to do it safely.
Any educator who wishes to discuss this with me further may leave a comment and I will respond. Perhaps a good conversation can generate idea and solutions.
Wendy C. Kasten, Ph.D.
School of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies – Literacy
March 1982. I was a new grad student in the Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona. I worked for Dr. Yetta M. Goodman, who would also direct my dissertation during these years (81-84). Yetta had, some years prior, initiated the Arizona Young Author’s Conference, in which hundreds of local school children, grades k-8, would come to the Tucson campus, with something they had written in hand, and meet a guest author – in this case, Tomie de Paola. I was in charge of that conference. Yetta assigned me to spend the day with Tomie prior to conference day, and take him out to the Tohono O’Odham (Papago) reservation schools for a visit. It’s a long ride there and back, and so it began a friendship.
Tomie was an entertaining and energetic guest for the Arizona Young Author’s Conference the next day. And when I left for my first professor position in 1984, and was asked by my new Dean at the University of South Florida to begin some young author’s conferences for gulf-area Florida (which became the Suncoast Young Author’s Conference), I booked Tomie as our first guest author (and a few other things over the years). I saw him now and then at events, but then, we discovered this weird sort-of family connection between us.
My uncle Anton was married to my Aunt Mildred (Aunt by marriage). Aunt Mildred was an only child, and so formed a sibling-like bond with a cousin named Kay. Kay and her husband ran an Inn in new England (was it Vermont or NH?), and happened to live next door to (and became best friends with) Flossie – Tomie’s mother!
When Kay and her husband passed away, it was Aunt Mildred who had to travel to New England to clean out Kay’s things and settle their estate. She was helped by Flossie in the process. Aunt Mildred contacted me. “I have all these books I don’t know what to do with. They’re from someone named Tomie DePaola. Do you want any of them? The neighbor says he’s quite well known.”
I replied YES I would take any or all of them, as we were friends, and I taught children’s literature, and who wouldn’t want more books by Tomie? The real gem that arrived in the package is pictured below. It was Tomie’s thesis at Pratt. He chuckled when I told him I had it. He said that was fine, he didn’t need it (there were multiple copies). Here it is.
I’ll miss him in the world. No more Strega Nona books. No more new editions of Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs. No more Christmas cards. Here is the last one!
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.