May Visit

You enter by the unlocked side door, and see her there on the couch. She is expecting you and the fruit bread you carry. She does not rise to greet you; it’s an effort for her.  You hug and cheek kiss, offer to take the bread to the kitchen. It is 1:30 p.m. and she has already eaten lunch, she says.

You sit near her, examine her closely. Her face has thinned, she is a little pale, but her eyes are clear and bright. You comment on how good she looks. She says her son has just said the same thing. The conversation follows its usual path: catch-up on husbands and children and grandchildren, birthdays and Mother’s Day with (and without) children. There is no judgement on anything that is said. Or felt.

There are pauses in the conversation, but it doesn’t matter. Before long she expresses the desire to go outside to sit for a while. She can make it with a walker. Your only worry is that she will be cold. The sun is out, the sky is clear, but there is a breeze. You tell her all of that and then help her on with her woolen poncho.

She makes her way with her walker through the kitchen to the door leading to the yard. While she is doing that, you retrieve a metal folding chair that is leaning on the outside of the house, then set it up out by the picnic table. You help her down the stone steps, settle her into the metal chair and turn her walker into a footstool. You have to go back inside to get the navy pillows to support her back and legs. She looks fairly comfortable. There is nowhere for you to sit.

You remember seeing an old metal step stool by the back of the house. You imagine it is used to reach high-growing lilacs or later in the season, raspberries. You retrieve it, place it next to her chair, and sit. The air is clean and cool and you both sit in dappled sunlight under the hemlock.  It is next to the twisted catalpa tree. You pick up one of the spent pods and say aloud what it might be like to soak and weave those pods. She points out the herb and lettuce garden her husband planted by the back door. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. You say it is her Simon and Garfunkel garden. She smiles.

There is a lot to observe and you do it mostly in silence. Before long she asks if maybe you are bored (you are not) and if you maybe want to go get your book. Funny, you say, you have no desire to read. You were just thinking about how you once kept a field journal, went out into the yard each day at the same time and recorded in sketches and words what you saw. Remarkably, you tracked some very subtle changes in the environment. You tell her that, acknowledging that there is so much to wonder about and behold. She knows that instinctively. You first knew it from reading Emily Dickinson, a master of observation.

Suddenly, you are alerted by the buzzing of bees. That seems out of synch as it is quite early (and cool) for bees, but you hear it nevertheless. But before you have time to remark upon it, you know that it is not bees at all, but rather a hummingbird, incessantly flapping its tiny wings, flying among the hemlock branches. You see it as does she. You both wait in anticipation for him to find the feeder she has placed by the kitchen door.  She made the nectar herself (one cup sugar to four cups water she says, no red dye, she emphasizes). The feeder hangs from a large pot of red and orange “million bells.”

You question whether she heard the buzzing/flapping sound but she says no, and then you remember she is due to be fitted for hearing aids the next day, or is it the day after. It doesn’t matter.  You both see the tiny creature, and when she whispers there it is, there is delight in her voice, and a deep satisfaction seems to come over her. You ask at one point how big she thinks a hummingbird egg is. She indicates with her fingers she thinks it is about the size of a navy bean. You make a mental note to look it up later. You stay awhile, watching the ruby-throats come and go. You don’t talk as the experience is saying it all.

Before long, she grows tired, indicates she wants to go in. You help her get her feet back on the ground. You note her ankles are swollen; this is something new. As you help her navigate the stone path and steps, she asks you to leave the folding chair where it is, facing the hummingbird feeder. You decide to leave the step stool there, as well, a silent invitation to witness small miracles.

Housekeeping!

Cover of the 1961 Girl Scout Handbook, Intermediate Program

When I was a kid, I was a Girl Scout. One of the attractions of that for me was earning badges. I guess that fits my personality. Earning badges involved completing various tasks: some required, others self-selected from a list of options. Once you completed the required number of activities, you qualified for a particular badge. For me this was perfect: there was a goal and a path to the goal, and in the end there was a reward.

There were several categories of badges that girls could earn. These included “Adventuring in the Arts,” “Citizens Here and Abroad,” “Fun and Exploration in the Out-of-Doors” and “You and Your Home.” They sometimes added new badges, too, such as “Pen Pal.” Scouts could earn some badges on their own, but oftentimes an entire Girl Scout troop would work together to fulfill the requirements. Then everyone in the troop would receive a badge that they (or their mother or grandmother) would sew on their official Girl Scout sash.

We worked on badges in the library at Noah Webster School, which was our regular meeting place, but once in a while we completed some of the activities at the home of one of our leaders, Mrs. G. What I remember most about Mrs. G was her enthusiasm. She was bound and determined that our troop was going to earn a great many badges under her direction. One particular year, she got it into her head that we were going to earn the Housekeeper Badge.  It was either April or early May, and the school year (and thus Girl Scout meeting time) was winding down. There was just enough time to earn another badge, and we all going to become expert housekeepers!

In order to earn the badge, we had to complete ten activities, including two starred items.  The starred items were: “Discuss in troop meeting what a good housekeeper does and choose which of the jobs [we could each] do daily, weekly, or occasionally to help at home.” Then we had to report back to the troop. The second was to “help give a thorough cleaning to a room at home or your troop meeting place.”  I know I met the two starred requirements (I have the badge), but I don’t remember which eight of the remaining fourteen I completed. I doubt if I helped “protect family clothing and household goods from moths and other pests,” but I may have reorganized “a clothes closet or kitchen closet  . . . so that everything [was] arranged for greater convenience.”

In retrospect, this doesn’t sound at all appealing, but when you are a girl with a large green sash just waiting to be filled up with badges, and someone is willing to help you do just that, it sounds pretty good.  After all, what was so bad about housekeeping? We dove right in, matching our enthusiasm with that of our leader’s, and what we did was above and beyond the requirements.  We didn’t just clean a room, we cleaned most of Mrs. G’s house, and we did it under the guise of “Spring Cleaning.”

Mrs. G was thorough. We stripped every bed, turned and vacuumed every mattress, washed every inch of painted woodwork, and dusted every wall.  We mopped and polished floors. We mixed vinegar and water to wash windows (and then washed them). We swept the porch and beat the doormat. And as much as I would (and do) dislike doing all of that now, I remember it as being sort of fun! It was win, win, win! The troop members learned some important skills, the troop members got their badges, and Mrs. G got a clean house. All good.

Just for your information, there is no longer a Girl Scout Housekeeper Badge. In fact, after much research, I was not able to find a current badge dealing exclusively with housekeepers or housekeeping. The closest thing I could find was the Girl Scout Junior Independence Badge, which deals with learning the importance of life skills. These skills include “getting transportation smart” (you have to understand what is under the hood of a car), making your clothes look great (basic laundry and sewing skills), breaking a bad habit (trying to break a bad habit and charting the progress), helping around the house (tidying and cleaning a room) and showing off your independence (ordering a meal at a restaurant, for example).

Girl Scouting has changed with the times, and that’s a good thing. Badge categories include STEM, Outdoors, Life Skills, and Entrepreneurship.  Scouts can earn badges in such things as digital movie making, primitive camping, netiquette, and budgeting.  Newer badges of interest encompass subjects such as robotics, “college knowledge,” mechanical engineering, and environmental stewardship.  It sounds like tons of fun. But just in case you are considering doing some spring cleaning, my advice is to approach it as Mrs. G did: with much enthusiasm. I think that’s the key.

Many thanks to Melissa Ilies, Program Coordinator-Service Unit/Troop Support, Girl Scouts of Connecticut, Inc., for help in securing research materials  and for the tour of the Girl Scout Museum.
Reference: Girl Scout Handbook: Intermediate Program. Girl Scouts of the U. S. A. New York: 1961.
Photo (cropped cover, Girl Scout Handbook, 1961) 2019 ©Denise Kennedy

What are the Chances?

Dictionary.com defines a coincidence as “a striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance.”  All of us have had experiences with coincidence: the chance meeting of a neighbor in a foreign country, the phone call from a childhood friend you were just thinking about yesterday. Coincidences are funny things, and they give us a great deal to consider. Why do they happen? Do they carry meaning?  I’ve been thinking about these questions in relation to the following happenstance for a long time.

Many years ago, when our kids were preteens, we took a summer day trip to Hammonassett State Park by the shore. It was a great day: a blanket on the beach and a dip in the sea. We dug for treasure and built a sand castle or two, as well.  I remember the warmth of the sun and the sound of the waves; I was happy that the kids still enjoyed these simple pleasures. Suddenly, our eldest daughter came running over to the blanket, treasure in hand.  She had found a jeweled class ring. It was too big for even her thumb.

After close examination, we determined the school of origin, year of graduation, and the initials of the owner (engraved on the inside of the ring). After a few weeks and a fair amount of encouragement, our daughter wrote a letter to the high school, describing what she had found and asking if perhaps they could identify the owner of the ring. They could and they did. In short order, the ring was returned to its rightful owner. He sent a very nice note of thanks, along with a very appropriate thank-you gift: a large blue and green striped beach towel.

About seven or eight years after the beach towel thank you arrived, my husband was dead-heading the marigolds in the front yard. As the mail carrier approached the front door, he stopped, and then turned toward my husband. “Does someone named “M” live here?” he asked, as he stared at an envelope in his hand.

“Yes, but she’s away at college. Why?”

The mail carrier went on to explain that a long time ago, a girl named “M” had returned to him a class ring that she had found on the beach. He related that soon after he had purchased the ring, he gave it to his then-girlfriend, who promptly lost it while at Hammonassett.  By the time our daughter found and returned the ring to him, it had been missing for many years, and the girlfriend had become a thing of the past.

My husband asked how it was that the ring owner put the ring story and our daughter together. He explained that he remembered her somewhat unusual first name as well as our street name, and in his words, “it was just too much of a coincidence.”  I must add here that this man was not our usual mail carrier. He was substituting that week for our regular delivery person. He said he had never been on our street before. 

It seems there were quite a few things at play.  My daughter found the ring; it was returned and acknowledged.  Many years later, the owner of the ring, who still remembered the story, happened to have been temporarily assigned to our street where my husband, who also remembered the story, happened to be outside, available for conversation. That is quite a set of circumstances.

Had the two men not recalled the event and conversed, the coincidence still would have occurred, physically anyway. They would have had the same connection, but they wouldn’t have realized it. We know about the coincidence because the two men remembered and talked and listened. So maybe it is that the remarkable thing about a coincidence is not that it happens, but that we perceive it. We take note. We listen. We share. 

There may be coincidences everywhere, just waiting for us to find them.  What are the chances? I think the chances are quite good.

Photograph ©2019 Denise Kennedy

A Childhood Memory

Some Old-time Valentines


I loved Valentine’s Day when I was a kid. I loved those little pastel hearts that declared “BE MINE” or “CUTIE”, and  I looked forward to delving into that heart-shaped box of chocolates that sometimes appeared out of nowhere on our dining room table. My best memory, though, isn’t about sweets at all. My fondest memory involves the exchange of Valentine’s Day cards

In elementary school, we always had a Valentine’s Day party. Part of the festivities involved giving and receiving cards, and there were explicit rules about the exchange. If you were participating in the exchange, you had to include everyone in the class. The teacher underscored this mandate numerous times, and pretty much everyone complied.  I don’t remember anyone expressing hurt or sorrow over having been left out. We spent an afternoon or so decorating small brown paper bags using crayons and (depending on the teacher) small bits of ribbon or paper doilies that we could attach with a brush full of thick school paste. Some kids actually ate that stuff. But that’s a whole other story.

The final part of school Valentine’s Day preparation involved writing our names on the bags and lining them up on the window sill. When the special day arrived, we would bring our cards to school and put one card in each classmate’s bag. It would have taken some time to choose or make just the right Valentine for our pals and for the boys (!) and especially for the teacher. Then we had to wait the whole day to open our bags and look over all of the greetings we had received. 

The real fun was at home, though. Sometime on February 14th or maybe, if we were really organized, the day before, one of my sisters or perhaps my mother would dig out an old shoebox from an unvisited closet corner. She would cover the box in red or pink construction paper, top on, and then decorate the box with “love” sentiments or hearts or lips or some other holiday-appropriate design. Finally, she would cut a slit into the top of the box into which all members of the household—grandmother, parents, and all five kids—would slip little notes or cards, one for each family member.

After dinner on Valentine’s Day, my grandmother would surprise us with a special dessert. It would most likely be something like heart-shaped sugar cookies from Viking Bakery, the ones sprinkled with red-colored sugar, or maybe cupcakes with swirls of sweet, pink frosting. Then Mom would open the Valentine’s Day box and distribute the cards and notes, proof positive that we all loved one another. 

May you revisit or make some lovely Valentine’s Day memories this year!

photo 2019 by dfskennedy

The Story of Bonnie and More

TORN SCREEN OHIO

I attended a small college in Ohio, one historically affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC). As part of the school’s mission, students were encouraged to demonstrate engagement with the local community in order to improve understanding of diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles. We had opportunities to do this through clubs, Greek life, and with our dorms under the direction of our dorm councils. There were no co-ed dorms, and all women’s dormitories had “house mothers.” Sophomore year, my housemother was Phyllis Millspaugh, a perfect combination of friend and grandmother, who brought out the best in everyone. I am not sure if it was because of Mrs. Millspaugh, but that year my dorm “adopted” a family who lived on the outskirts of town.

The dorm was paired with the family through the college, the UCC, and the town social services department. Mostly, we collected money for food and then shopped for groceries for the family, which were delivered by various women of the dorm and Mrs. Millspaugh, who drove out to the country in her ten-year-old sedan. The family was poor: a single mother and four kids, the oldest being an eight-year-old named Bonnie, and the youngest, a four-month-old named, interestingly, Hope. The mother would accept the groceries with thanks, but it was clear that she didn’t want a real relationship, and no one ever hung around for more than a few minutes.

I am not sure how involved I was in this, but I vaguely remember that we bought the family some special things for Christmas, including, I believe, a canned ham and some toys. In the spring, the dorm council had the idea of maybe inviting the oldest child, Bonnie, to spend a night with us at the dorm. The plan would be to deliver groceries, pick up Bonnie, and take her back to campus with us. We might buy her some clothes, play games with her, and maybe pick up some extra treats. With a solid plan made, we secured permission in all the necessary places, and Mrs. Millspaugh agreed to do the transporting. As it turned out, Bonnie was to stay in my room with me and my roommate, Linda.

I had grown up in the city, and I went to an inner city high school. We weren’t poor, but I did go to school with kids who lived in poverty. My roommate lived in a university town in Michigan. I still remember how she didn’t believe that my stepfather drove me to the junior prom because my date’s family didn’t have a car. She lived near the motor city, after all, and had never heard of such a thing. I was pretty sure she didn’t know much about real city living. In all fairness, I really didn’t know a thing about suburban or rural life. As it turned out, we both had a lot to learn.

Bonnie and her family were rural poor. They lived in a run-down house in Northwestern Ohio. People who lived out that way were farmers. They grew soybeans or tomatoes that were sent out to Hunts for canning. I was to learn, in my senior year while student teaching, that kids who lived on the farms got out of school early during certain times of the year so they could go home to help with the harvest.  When you drove out into the countryside, you could see shacks and even chicken coops that were occupied by humans. Bonnie’s place was a real house, though it was dilapidated: peeling paint, sagging windows, and what can only be described as a hen-scratched front yard.

On the day of Bonnie’s planned overnight, Mrs. Millspaugh drove Linda and me all the way out of town onto a winding rural route whose number I do not remember. We traded multiple bags of groceries for a cute little girl named Bonnie. She had a paper bag with her. Inside she had tossed a dingy undershirt and a pair of underwear.  When we walked out to the car, Bonnie grasped a faded, plastic geranium in her hand. She held it out, an offering.

“Pretty,” Linda commented. “Where did you get it?”

“Oh, we get them from the graves, over the road there,” she said, gesturing towards a small cemetery.

Silence followed. No one knew what to say.

I honestly don’t remember a lot about the rest of that day or the ride back to the dorm. But I think we ate with Bonnie in the dining hall, and I remember that when it was time to go to bed, Linda and I suggested that Bonnie take a shower. She was excited because we had lotion and powder and hair ribbons and she was going to get to use them. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that she had never taken a shower before. Right.  No running water at her house.

My dorm had community bathrooms, and I distinctly recall that as we walked down the long hall, the closer we got to the bathrooms, the more slowly Bonnie walked.  She waited patiently as I fiddled with the water, trying to get it to the perfect temperature for her. Then, when I encouraged her to step in, she just wouldn’t budge.  Bonnie was afraid of that splashing torrent of water that was about to rain down on her head.  She wouldn’t get into the shower.

I cajoled. I coaxed. I told her how great it would feel.  But as it turned out, I had to strip down and shower with Bonnie, remarking all the while how nice and soothing and warm the water was. Bonnie finally relaxed and enjoyed the experience. She liked my shampoo and the smooth bar of Ivory soap. When we got back to the room she told me she was happy to have me wash and comb through her hair because the kids at school always called her “Cootie Kid.”

That night, Bonnie told my roommate and me that if she could have anything in the world, it would be a pair of bell bottoms. While I am not altogether sure about this, I think we bought them for her, although I am not sure when or where. We brought her home the next day, transported once again by Mrs. Millspaugh.  We brought more bags of groceries along, too.  Bonnie’s mother blandly thanked us and then shouted to Bonnie, “You’ve had your fun, now, so go get some wood. RIGHT. NOW.”

Having told this story on numerous occasions in the past, I have always focused on how naïve I was or how one can find poverty in various forms and places in a land of great abundance. But now, many years later, it is in the writing of the story that I see that Mrs. Millspaugh is one of its main characters. I may have forgotten many of the details of her involvement, but I know that she drove, she shopped, and she quietly guided us.  If she ever felt inconvenienced by the project, she certainly never showed it, and she always modeled caring beyond self. In this telling, I realize that whatever good came out of the relationship between Bonnie’s family and the young women in my dorm would not have happened without Mrs. Millspaugh, and I have a much greater sense of appreciation for all that she did for all of us.

 

 

 

Author’s note: Bonnie’s name has been changed

Artwork: “Torn Screen,” by Mariana Palmer

The Bitter Side of Sweet

M&M

It’s October.  The stores are filled with chocolate, everything from fun size-bars to jumbo-size bags of assorted milk and dark chocolate goodies. Yes, there are the requisite bags of candy corn and gumdrop pumpkins, but the shelves in every grocery or drug store nearly groan under the weight of pounds and pounds of delectable chocolate treats. That’s the sweet part.

Today I finished reading The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan. The book is a well-researched work of fiction that chronicles the lives of children who work the cacao farms of the Ivory Coast, a country from which 40 per cent of the world’s cocoa is derived. There, thousands of children work on farms in deplorable conditions without pay.  In essence, the children slave to help produce treats for other children who live in far-away places. That’s the bitter.

The narrative chronicles the experiences of two brothers who agree to leave their home in Mali to help harvest cacao pods. They expect to get paid and hope to earn enough money to send home to their poverty-stricken grandparents, who are their guardians. When the boys arrive, they find that they must work to fill quotas and are severely punished if they do not meet them. The children are barely fed and are locked in a shed at night.  They are never paid. They are slaves.

The story gets a little more complicated when a lone girl is brought to the compound. She is a kidnapping victim, and her defiance and a terrible accident bring the story to a head when the children decide that no matter what the consequences, they must escape. Without food, clothing, or money, they try to find their way back to their respective homes. It is a harrowing experience for them and for the reader who lives through it with them.

The issue of child slavery and its relation to the production of chocolate is not a problem with a simple solution. Many cacao growers are small farmers living in poverty themselves, and many large-scale chocolate producers insist that they are not involved in any way with child slavery in far-away Africa.  Economic problems involving workers rarely have simple solutions . . .

On her web page, Sullivan asserts, “In The Bitter Side of Sweet, [the characters] are forced to work as slaves on a cacao farm in the Ivory Coast. Sadly, this is reflective of the reality of how most mainstream chocolate in the world today is grown.”  She thanks readers for taking the time to inform themselves.

Please know, however, that the narrative itself is not preachy or political. The author allows the reader to come to his or her own determination about what to feel or do about the situation presented by the story of the three main characters in the book. The Bitter Side of Sweet is nominated for the 2019 Connecticut Nutmeg Award, Teen Division.  Recommended for ages 12 and up.

For more information about chocolate production and what you can do, click HERE

To read “How Harry Potter Fans Won a Four-year Fight against Childhood Slavery,” click HERE

 

Author’s note: I took the picture above at a local drug store. I do not know the sourcing of any of the products pictured or named in the photograph.

Bread

bread rising

Most people know me as a teacher or a librarian or as the newest title insists: a teacher-librarian. But before all of that, before our kids were in school all day, before even that one year when our youngest was in half-day kindergarten and I was substituting at the local elementary school, I was actually a professional baker.

As newlyweds, my husband and I had dreamed of being “urban homesteaders.” We would teach one another everything we knew how to do. He would show me how to skim-coat walls and change tires, and I would teach him how to hem pants and can tomatoes. That kind of stuff. We had to alter our plans a bit though, because we ended up buying a tall house on a double lot in Manchester, Connecticut, and guess what  . . . we had a mortgage.  Somebody had to get a real, paying job. That somebody turned out to be my husband, who had training as a health professional.

We tried to hang on to part of the dream. We built some passive solar units that fit nicely into our huge, south-facing windows. We constructed an in-ground composting system. But best of all, we planted a huge garden, mostly fruits and vegetables and herbs, with a few flowers thrown in for good measure. I learned a great deal about gardening, joined a food co-op, had two kids, two cats, and a cellar full of canned goods. I quilted and sewed clothes and curtains. My favorite place to be was in the kitchen, and I made everything from scratch: yogurt, yogurt cheese, herb mixes, cookies, cakes, jams, breads, biscuits, you name it.

There was no Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines for my kids. I was an Earth Mother—no artificial anything. But the best part and my favorite part of all of those kitchen-centered years, was the baking of the bread: the measuring, the kneading, the rising. And there was the yeasty smell, the warm loaves on the counter, begging for a serrated knife and a spread of softened butter (not homemade) or jam (berries handpicked, jam homemade and home canned). When we were invited to friends’ homes, I brought a loaf of multi-grained “Pilgrim Bread” or pumpernickel.  You could tap on the crusts of the bread and get that just-right sound, and the soft, evenly-textured middle was delicious, if I do say so myself.

Word spread. People started asking me to bring loaves to all kinds of events, and quite frankly, it got to be a bit of a burden. Bread making took hours. True, it wasn’t all “active” time, but there was prep and there was rising time (two risings) and I could only bake off so many loaves at once in my standard-sized oven. That led me to start spreading the word quietly among my friends that I was thinking about actually charging real money for requested loaves. My two running partners, who were in the same food co-op I was in, said they would help get the “news” out, and I thought that would be the end of it.

I was wrong. Orders starting coming in: some nice whole wheat for Thursday, pita for Sunday, old-fashioned oatmeal (two loaves, please) for Tuesday. I branched out into making some quick breads, too: lemon and zucchini and pumpkin.  Those were popular and not as time consuming as yeast breads, and I was feeling pretty good about things.  I was actually making a little money in my small kitchen in the tall red house. I was doing something I loved: baking bread and muffins and cookies, too.  I was busy and I was happy.

There were looming problems, however. I was having trouble keeping up with the orders. I needed more time and space and help. I didn’t have a baking license and my kitchen had not been inspected for commercial use. My growing little “business” had gotten the better of me, and I realized I had to slow things down if I didn’t want to rock the bureaucratic boat.  I didn’t have money to sink into new equipment or licenses, and I found myself standing in front of my oven wondering what to do. Crunch time.

Our kids were getting bigger.  Our tall red house needed painting. There were other things to pay for, too: oil changes and hygienist visits and gymnastic lessons. Reality was setting in, and I had to make some decisions and some plans for the future.  In the end I gave up my little unauthorized business.  I took a few night classes and updated my teaching certificate. Three years later our kids were in school all day, and I was in the classroom writing lesson plans for “Survey of American Literature,”  correcting papers, and hoping for a snow day so I could get out the mixing bowls.

 

Author’s note: Some of this story is true. A friend challenged me to write an elaborate lie that was somewhat believable, which I tried to do here. I never became a professional baker when our children were young; however, I have thought about it on occasion since then.

Paper Dolls

paperdolls

I was seven-years old. Michelle was six. I am guessing at the ages but I think that is pretty much correct. We were neighbors and pals. We played hopscotch, chalk on sidewalk. We wove crepe paper streamers in and out of the spokes of our two-wheelers (I think Michelle still had training wheels on hers). We played dolls and Parcheesi and pick-up sticks, the wooden ones, with painted tips. She went to Catholic school, and I did not, so we didn’t share our schooldays, but on the weekends and over the summer, we were fast friends. True blue.

Our street, though in the city, was purely residential. It ran between a two-lane thoroughfare, which led to Elizabeth Park, and Farmington Avenue, a bus-busy, city street.  Michelle and I lived on the block closest to the bus line, and there were a lot of little businesses on the avenue:  a gas station, a delicatessen, a five and ten cent store, and a bar. Further away but still within walking distance one could find a bowling alley, a full size grocery store (small by today’s standards) and a funeral home. In those days it was not unusual for kids to be out and about. We stuck together and had a certain amount of freedom.  Older siblings and adults, whether our parents or not, kept watch over us and what was going on in the neighborhood. I felt safe and looked after.

One summer day, Michelle and I had secured permission to walk down to Farmington Avenue together to look at paper dolls in Leaders, the  five and ten cent store. We were often sent, two-by-two, to the little deli next door to get mayonnaise or bread for our mothers, so the trip itself was not that unusual. I can almost see how we looked that day: dual ponytails swinging side to side as we walked down the street. Khaki shorts.  Sleeveless blouses, plaid or plain, collared and tucked in.  Maybe a thin leather or beaded belt. White ankle socks, folded neatly.  Keds, white or navy. The sneakers may have had the rubber toe guards. Or maybe we had outgrown that style by then. We both knew how to tie our shoes.

It was to be a grand adventure. We each had twenty-five or maybe thirty cents in our pockets and believe it or not that was pretty much enough to by a folder of bride paper dolls, but if they didn’t have those, we would settle for a set of sisters or playmates or twins (a boy and a girl). Paper dolls then were not the punch-out variety, but the type you had to cut out, and we each knew we would have to solicit our older sisters’ help with the cutting if we wanted the paper outfits to be just right. I don’t remember even looking at the dolls that day, but I still know exactly where in the store they were kept: at the very end of the second aisle, way in the back of that worn-wooden-floored store that sold everything from Bazooka bubble gum to picture hangers to worsted wool.  We didn’t end up buying anything that day, but I imagine we spent a good fifteen or twenty minutes looking at the selection. Eventually, we probably got “the look” from the proprietor, and the question, “Do you girls need some help?” and we would take the hint and get ready for the ten-minute walk back to my house.

The walk took a little longer than we expected.  As we passed the bar and rounded the corner, a man came out of the alleyway between the only apartment buildings on our street. He was tall and dark-haired, older than my father. He wore gray pleated trousers and a white shirt. I am not sure if I am remembering or imagining this, but he had dark, curly chest hair poking out through where his shirt collar folded over. I remember thinking that he didn’t seem clean.

“Hey, girls,” he said. “Do you want to see my turtle?”

Of course I knew the answer to that question and the answer was no, but before I could even say anything, Michelle said, “sure” (or maybe she didn’t really say that but I know there was a hesitation; she wanted to see that turtle, I just knew it), and off we went, following him into the side entrance of that brick apartment building. He led us down a half flight of stairs, toward the basement, dark and musty. As he turned to us he said, “Look, here it is,” and to my horror, I realized that his turtle was really not a turtle at all, but his penis.

We were speechless. I had never seen such a thing in my life, although I had a younger brother with whom I had bathed when we were much younger.  But this was much, much different.

I know he asked us if we wanted to touch it and one or both of us said or indicated that we did not. “We have to go,” I stammered, and I grabbed Michelle’s hand and we walked as fast as we could back onto the safety of our street. I don’t remember if he said anything else, but somehow I think he told us not to tell. Famous last words.

We were scared and horrified. On the way home, some fourteen houses down the street, we held hands as we talked about how it had been wrong to go with the man, but we knew we had to tell what had happened.  When we got to my house, my sister was sweeping the front porch, and I blurted the story out to her as soon as we got up the stairs.

“Go tell Mom, she said, “Right. Now.”

And we did.

 

Authors note:  As you can imagine, this was not the end of the story. There were stern talks from parents, sessions of questioning by officials, police line-ups and more. I do not know if the man was ever apprehended and if so, what the result of any of that was.  In time, it all blew over, but of course, I never forgot about it. Michelle is still my friend. She never forgot about it either.

What’s in a Name?

Sisters reservoir

For quite a few years I thought I was adopted. My sister, five years older than I, told me it was true, and I believed her. She convinced me that I didn’t look anything like my brother and sisters and even encouraged me to look at the numerous picture albums the family had, where I would see that there were very, very few pictures of me as an infant because “you weren’t part of the family then.” I asked my other two sisters about the adoption, and I asked my mother, too, and everyone but the story-teller assured me that the story-teller was just teasing.

I must insert here that I worshipped my sister, the story-teller. She ordered me around and I let her, because if I didn’t do what she said, she wouldn’t play with me. One time she called out the third floor window to me (I was outside), crying out that she really needed me. I stopped playing and ran into the house, up all of the stairs, and asked what she wanted. “Would you go downstairs and get me a tissue?” she asked blandly. I kid you not. She wanted me to go downstairs and get her a tissue! What’s worse is that I did it. No questions asked. My sister had a certain power over me, and part of that complicated, childhood relationship fed into my believing whatever she told me, including the adoption story.

Furthermore, there was the matter of my brother and sisters’ names, which made the adoption story even more believable. It seems that there was some meaning behind each of my siblings’ names, but there was no significance in mine. My oldest sister was named for our great-grandmother. Another sister had a female version of my father’s name. The story-teller was named after my mother. I was next in line and was named after  . . .  NO ONE!  “It was a name your father liked,” my mother asserted. Yeah, right. I didn’t believe it for a minute. My brother, by the way, two years younger than I, was a junior. Need I say more?

I never really liked my name, but I have learned to live with it. I find names intriguing, and in my genealogical work, I come across some very unusual and interesting ones.  A few years back, when researching my own family, I discovered that the first Irish relative of mine to immigrate to the United States was named Denis. Denis, like Denise! Before my “discovery,” no living person in my family even knew of the existence of Denis, and I “found” him. Yes, Denise found Denis. And I claimed him as my own. I claimed him and set out to find out all I could I about him and his family in in Hartford, Connecticut, the very city where I was born, and I claimed all of that, too. In my own little make-believe world, I am named for him, and the connections I feel to him somehow make me feel a little bit better about my name. Sort of.

As for all of those photographs in all of those albums—I see now that I looked exactly like my siblings; at least there is a strong resemblance.  Today, I have a very nice relationship with all four of my siblings, and whenever we are able to get together we have lots of fun. As an adult, I asked the story-teller about the tale of adoption, and interestingly, she didn’t remember anything about it.  I still like my siblings’ names better than I like my own, and if I were to choose a name for myself today, it would be Marianina or Johanna, and there would be a real story to go along with it. Instead, whenever I travel down a certain street in Hartford, I think of my great-great grandfather who owned a little grocery across from the train station and made a good life for himself and his family in the United States of America. That’s a pretty good story, after all.

 

Picture “The Story-teller and Her Sister” ©MJS all rights reserved

Care

Japanese Garden

There was a time, not too long ago, when I felt the need to get away, just by myself. For several months I struggled with changes that had occurred or were about to occur in my life, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with my life going forward.

Don’t get me wrong, I had and have a wonderful life. I wasn’t depressed or suicidal or anything like that. My mother had passed away in November and I was retiring from a long career in public education the following June. I was adrift.  I needed time to think and walk and write and pray and meditate whenever and however I wanted. Uninterrupted. With no chores or responsibilities.

I thought maybe going on a retreat of some sort would help and so I began a search for a place that matched my needs. I decided to attend a seven-day, silent, directed retreat at a spiritual center in Central Massachusetts. The retreat was designed to “provide time and space for prayer and solitude.” Each day I was to meet with a spiritual director, who would help me to reflect on my journey. During those meetings, I would be encouraged to converse. But only then.

I was nervous on a few levels. I am a talker. I love music and song. I wondered if spending all that time with nobody but myself was doable. Those were my first concerns. But on a different level, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The center is run by the Roman Catholic Church and I am not a Roman Catholic. The retreat description emphasized that the program was designed as a “contemplative journey rooted in the Christian wisdom tradition.” Hmmm . . .

I called the center, explaining my religious background and practice, just to be sure I wasn’t getting into something that wouldn’t suit my needs. I was assured that specific religious background did not matter at all, that my meetings with my advisor would be tailored to my spiritual needs as we discovered them, and not to worry at all. I signed up.

I didn’t need to pack much: casual clothes, a couple a sweaters for cooler times, a rain jacket, and my walking shoes. I brought books, my journal, and many notebooks that I hoped to fill with all the writing I thought I was going to do. The school year ended, I retired, and in two weeks I was off to the retreat.

I arrived a little early and was given a key to my room, which was on the second floor. I hauled my suitcase up the stairs, opened the door, looked at my room, and nearly cried. For joy. It was a simple room, designed for two, although I was not to have a roommate. The twin beds had old-style matelassé spreads and atop of those, precisely folded, handmade, pieced quilts embroidered with lovely, comforting, quotations. The room had a little sink (showers and toilets were dorm-style, down the hall), a desk, chair, bureau, and closet. There were two windows that looked out into the woods. An old-fashioned, metal wastebasket with a floral design painted on it competed the scene. It was charming. But more than that, it just felt as if everything in it had been prepared with care. And it dawned on me, then, that that was precisely what I needed.

Let me step back for a moment. When I was a kid, I had this pact with my mother. On the days that my bed sheets were changed, we had a sort of deal, that I would always have a bath, a shampoo, clean pajamas, and both finger and toenail cutting on that very same day. We called it “a set.” And I distinctly remember when the bed was turned down on those nights (somehow in my memory it is always summer), I could see that the hem of the sheet had been folded just so over a light flannel blanket and the pillow had been smoothed, any extra pillowcase having been folded neatly underneath. The sheets smelled like outdoor drying, and I saw then, more than I felt, that the bed had been made with care. And so it was that as soon as I entered my very simple room at the retreat center, I knew that whoever had prepared it, cared about the preparation. The room had everything I needed physically, but more than that, it felt a little bit like my childhood home, in a caring sort of way.

I unpacked my things, and prepared to explore the campus a bit. Dinner was at six, at which time all retreatants would meet one-another and would be given information about meals and meetings and security and all of the “housekeeping” elements of the retreat.  I was about to start the first hours of silence, only to be broken at dinner time. For now, everything was good. Very good.

Dinner: good food and conversation. All twenty-something of us gathered at round tables, exchanged first names, hometown information, and all of the small talk that accompanies such get-togethers. After dessert, the director explained how to get in and out of the building, meal times, advisor appointments, etc. She then told us that meals, too, after that evening, would be eaten in silence. After all of that and a time for questions, each of us was asked to tell a little about herself to the whole group. As usual, I ran through my head what I would share as I awaited my turn, but as I was doing that something quite unexpected happened.

All but two of the retreatants, as it turned out, were Roman Catholic sisters of various orders from all over the Northeast. An Episcopalian deacon and I were the two exceptions. I’m not sure why, but I panicked. Had I misread the retreat description? Missed something on the registration form? I felt nothing short of odd. And confused. Not worried really, but out of my element, which totally makes sense since I am not part of any religious “order” and I am not even Catholic. I work the food pantry at my church and once was part of the knitting ministry, but I do not hold a church “office.” But I was there and committed to staying and soon the conversation among us returned to what it had been. Now that my table-mates knew about my career and that I was married and had children and grandchildren, they had all sorts of questions. We shared our likes and dislikes.

I learned a little about the various orders of sisters. Some of the sisters worked in education, some in medicine. A few were retired. Some of us shared interests in music and contemplative walking. One person told me about a nearby park that was famous for its peaceful Japanese gardens and walking paths. Before I could ask more about that, the conversation turned to other things and then dinner was over, and so was the talking.

I decided to go to my room to journal, read, and ready myself for the next day. I sort of wondered how I would fill all of the time I had before me. Eventually, I got into bed, turned off the bedside lamp, and started to listen to the quiet. Interestingly, there was a lot of noise. My window was open and I heard a car radio, far away. Someone in the building was running her window air-conditioner. A door opened and closed, and then I heard shuffling feet, someone making her way to shower, perhaps.

A moment later, I sensed someone outside my room. I held my breath as I heard what I thought was something slide under my door. I waited a minute or two and then got out of bed to retrieve whatever it was. I turned on the light before unfolding a white-lined piece of paper that appeared to have been ripped out of a composition notebook. I smiled as I read the turn-by-turn walking directions to the local park, the one with the Japanese gardens. The note was unsigned. I turned out the light and relaxed as I replayed the day in my mind. I had made it through Day 1, despite its surprises, and I knew for certain that I was among kind and caring people.

 

photo©Denise S. Kennedy