Short Pieces and Essays

Grown-up Topics

The Intersection of Invention and Culture: Part 1 and 2 of 3

Invention and the Intersection of Culture

Part I The Question

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 questions.”

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!

Part II

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.”

Blog

On Journaling….

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).

Radio Essays

The Pearls

The Pearlshttps://archives.weru.org/?s=The+Pearls

W.C. Kasten

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.

Essays, Uncategorized

Thinking of you, Valeriy

Ukraine flag

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.

Grown-up Topics, Uncategorized

Searching for Love Poems – Full story

W.C. Kasten

            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.

To Mary

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.

From Henry

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.

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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:

ON LEAVING

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.

Blog

Playing Tricks on Grandpa

Playing Tricks on Grandpa

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.

But that’s another story.

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Short Pieces and Essays

Remembering Christmas

(taken from a letter I wrote to my Grandmother while she was in hospice in 1979)

Dear Grandma,

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.

Mom on left, Dad on right, other relatives in the middle.
Tom, Me, our cat Frosty, around 58-59
Me in my Christmas dress, around 1956.

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.

love,

wendy

Short Pieces and Essays, Uncategorized

Remote and Distance Learning during Covid-19: Lessons from Australia

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.

Professor Emerita

School of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies – Literacy

Kent State University

wkasten@kent.edu
Belfast
Short Pieces and Essays, Uncategorized

Remembering Tomie de Paola

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!

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

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

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.