Category Archives: Personal and family life

Transitions

Guest blog post – Rita Parquette

In the mid-seventies, I worked as an obstetrical nurse in the labor and delivery rooms of Augusta General Hospital in Maine. Post Roe v Wade, the transition was well underway from abortion as a rare medical necessity to save the life of the mother to common. We witnessed the practice grow from rare to wildfire – sixty million in the U.S. since those early days. The near religious fervor of the pro-abortion lobby seeking ever fewer constraints placed on killing their offspring, at first was a small minority, but well financed. They rode a wave of ironically named ‘liberation’ and ran over all compunctions and objections. Roe was the most liberal decision regarding abortion in the world at that time.  It allowed abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.

During that time, nurses were sometimes demeaned by a few doctors, but they held firm as they were able. One firm stand for many of us was abortion. We observed with justified concern the decreasing empathy and hardening treatment of both mothers and babies from those doctors who shared one characteristic in their practices: they added abortion provider to their resumes. The doctors plying the termination trade were having difficulty finding OR nurses to attend them in the Augusta General operating room in the basement; at one point the head nurse on the upper OB floor asked us to “help out our doctors.” We refused. Our job was healing and preserving, not deliberately taking life. This was not a religious decision, but a humanitarian one and conformed to the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

“Those eyes that had hardly opened to the light of the earthly sun forever and ever were closed to the light of the earthly sun…” From “God Speaks,” “Holy Innocents” Charles Peguy

One anecdote remains always vivid in my memory and haunts me to this day, nearly forty-five years later. On a typical busy evening, I was helping two young mothers in labor. We had moved on from the scopolamine doping of women to more humane and dignified obstetrical practices. My practice was to try and calm their fear, then guide them through controlled breathing and relaxation techniques.  One of my patients was only about sixteen weeks pregnant, and we had no neo-natal intensive care facilities in Augusta. Optimally we would attempt to arrest her sporadic and weak contractions. Standard practice was to start an IV. Hydration and improved electrolyte balance at times could stop premature labor, and the pregnancy could proceed to term. Not that night.

Dr. R, one of the more zealous of the pro-abortion OB/GYN practitioners, entered the labor room and spoke briefly to the young mother; I was busy with another patient and not privy to the conversation. He then strode over and instructed me curtly to put an ampule of Pitocin into the IV.  Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, which is a natural powerful hormone that induces more rapid and stronger contractions to intensify labor.  We were trying to retard labor or stop it to give the baby her best chance, so I was surprised, then aghast. I refused and told him that if he wanted Pitocin into that IV, he would have to do it himself! We used metal folding clipboards for medical charts. While I was busy standing at the nurse’s high station writing my own notes, he flung this patient’s metal chart about five feet, hard, and hit me on my left side in the ribs. I never saw it coming. Then he added the Pitocin into the IV. The labor intensified.  I was there for the mother and her baby.  I monitored the babies heart beat with a fetal stethoscope and told the mother I was getting a good heart beat and added that information to my notes.

Inevitably she was ready for delivery and wheeled into the delivery room. At this point, Dr. R’s friend, an anesthesiologist entered the scene.  We had many wonderful doctors at our hospital, but Dr. R and this particular anesthesiologist were not among them.   This anesthesiologist’s favorite way to summon a nurse was to whistle with two fingers in his mouth.  He put my patient deeply under, something rarely done because of risk to the newborn infant. The Pitocin accelerated labor, delivery ran its predictable course, and the unconscious mother delivered her tiny baby girl.  Dr. R dropped the baby into a stainless-steel basin nearby normally used to receive the placenta. He finished up quickly and left the delivery room before the mother awoke.

Immediately, a nursery nurse, whom I had already warned about the coming of this small baby, rescued the baby from her cold metal refuse bucket, wrapped and carried her to the newborn warming station where she suctioned her in a futile attempt to clear her breathing passages and stimulate breathing. She then rubbed and did her best to comfort this tiny girl. After over ten minutes without a breath, her heart ceased its beat.  The scene felt surreal to me; I was out of sync with the events and with the doctors – like a dream, a disturbing dream. I did not know what else I could do. Something like this had never happened to me or the other nurse.

Epilogue reflections:

When the mother woke from the anesthesia, I told her that her baby was born with a heartbeat but was unable to breath. Still somewhat drowsy, I tried to comfort her, but she seemed hard to reach.  I think she too might have felt like she was in a surreal world and not sure how she got there.  After her discharge, the mother called a mortician and a funeral was held.  The funeral home director received the doctor’s notes, my nurse’s notes and the notes of the nursery nurse who had done her best for the baby. Both doctors described the little girl as macerated, born dead, indeed they agreed she had been dead for a while. Both sets of nurse’s notes described her true condition. Since medical notes can wind up as legal documents, the funeral director notified the hospital administrator of the discrepancy and conflicting narratives. When the nursing supervisor for our shift came to me for an explanation, I assured her the nurse’s notes were the accurate ones and explained exactly what happened. She gave me a knowing look, and I never heard another word.

A couple of years later, when we had returned to the faith of our youth, I confessed this incident to our pastor, who remains a dear friend to this day. He suggested lovingly that in the circumstances I tried my best and that I needed to forgive myself. Father Joe further suggested that I should name the baby and pray for her mom and for all that had happened around that difficult night.  I named her Gabriella and do pray about this still. I hope to see her again some fine day and have a conversation.

A final related episode comes to mind. The equally troubled nursery room nurse had a discussion with an experienced and humane pediatrician the next day. She explained to him what had happened and asked if we had done the right thing in trying to save her and delivering all the professional care we could muster for that little girl. He smiled sadly and looked into her eyes. He assured her, “Where there is life, there is always hope.”

 “I AM says God, Master of the Three Virtues.  Faith is a faithful wife. Charity is an ardent mother. But Hope is a tiny girl.” “God Speaks, “Hope” Charles Peguy

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Brush Hooks and Plumb Bobs

“The world is not like a platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander. It’s a network of events affecting each other.” “The Order of Time”, Carlos Rovelli, 2018

In 1972 we lived with our toddler Amy and our infant Gabriel in a winter rental on Mashnee Island at the north end of the Cape Cod Canal across from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. We had very little money and an old flat head six-cylinder Chevy pickup truck painted with house paint that we bought in Boulder, Colorado when we lived there. Our next-door neighbor was Fred Cheever, who was in his sixties. John’s brother and Susan’s uncle, Fred befriended this young couple, told us of local must sees and gave us his copy of the New York Times Sunday paper after he finished with it. Fred ran the advertising department of a local radio station.

 That year I worked for Newell B. Snow, a third-generation land surveyor in Buzzards Bay. Newell was in his early eighties and had original surveyor’s notebooks from his grandfather in the Civil War era. Old school and meticulous, he required a cane to get from place to place, but cognitively had lost nothing off the two-seam fastball. He remembered half-buried marble markers to help in laying out old boundary lines. Finding these markers and proving boundaries by cutting a line and researching the old books could mean the difference between a land locked piece of property and one that was accessible and much more valuable to the owners. Detective work was the fun part; sometimes I would be allowed on a rainy day to help do the math to close the traverses, which had to be proofed within a narrow percentage. If one didn’t tie out, it meant going back into the woods to remeasure until the trigonometry of angles and measurements closed back to the starting point of the lot.

Newell’s son-in-law, Charlie was the crew chief, and Bob, a retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer in his late forties was second man on the crew. I was the third man, held the dumb end of the hundred-foot metal tape and cut brush and trees out of the line. Newell eschewed the use of noisy and expensive chainsaws, which regrettably for me, was one of the few things I was good at when I first started my year as a land surveyor. The century old design brush hooks cut the lines so that we could shoot and measure them with the manual transits. I soon learned how to keep brush hooks sharp and use their keen ability against tough, stringy vines and scrub shrubs. When working exposed to the onshore winds in January, maintaining core body heat was an ongoing struggle. Bob gave me a woolen Navy watch cap, a kind gift that helped. Twenty below in the Maine woods was not as numbing as North Atlantic wind that cored through and was impossible to ignore. The hard work of a brush hook helped to keep me warm.

Eventually I convinced Newell to buy a small Stihl chainsaw, and while it was less effective against vines and thick underbrush, it significantly improved the crew’s efficiency on the numerous scrub white oaks and red pines that blocked the sight lines of the transit.  The Stihl immediately increased our daily production. Instead of detouring around larger trees with four short ninety-degree shoots and measurements as had been done for prior centuries, I’d quickly drop the old scrub oaks or red pines into the adjacent woods and leave them. I regretted my recommendation and its ramifications. A twelve-inch diameter tree that may have been forty years old was too daunting to attack with a brush hook, but a chainsaw put it down in five or ten minutes.

“And because Your years do not pass, Your years are today… All our tomorrows to the end of time You shall make to be in this Your day; and all our yesterdays from the beginning of time You have made to be in this Your day.” St. Augustine, “Confessions,” Book One, Chapter Six

Long cut lines through bramble-clogged Cape Cod woods made up two legs of what we called “spaghetti lots”: an elongated rectangle with two hundred feet of road frontage and a half a mile or so into the trees and vines on each side. A lot of hills, measuring, shooting the lines and cutting.  The other surveyor’s skill that is mostly lost with encroaching technology is the plumb bob. Charlie would spot a wooden stake that we cut out of two by three studs sharpened with a hatchet on rain out days. I’d drive it into the exact location defined by the transit with a five-pound short handled sledge hammer, then nail a small tack into it as a temporary line marker for measurements. We used a metal hundred-foot tape stretched to an exact tension with a spring-loaded scale to make certain as exact a measurement as we could manage. Plumb bobs on both ends of the measurement with the other end of its string held against our tape suspended exactly over our tacks.

On inclines the tape had to be held level as well as with the proper tension. On steep hills, we could manage much less than hundred-foot measurements. Sometimes as little as a horizontal ten foot pull and we would need to place a new stake. The high end of the tape would be held precisely on the tack, the low end held high and level with straining arms and a nearly fully extended plumb bob string, the point of the plumb bob without a quiver held over the tack. The bob could not touch the nail because both the plumb and the exact dimension would be lost. On a half mile traverse, any accumulated small errors of inexactly taken measurements would ruin the closing back in the office.

Now, of course, all this is gone, along with four transit leveling screw gauges, meticulously adjusted by the crew chief at every set up. Electronic self-leveling laser transits and corresponding electronic target poles not only accomplish the exact measurements, the rectangular (or any other angled) multi sided traverses are closed and calculated as the surveying teams go along within the programming and screens of the transits. Plumb bobs, wooden stakes and tacks are forgotten accoutrements.

As I think about plumb bobs, straining arms held high to mark their precise locations to establish reliable borderlines, I ponder the lost plumb bobs of our bewildered culture, the objective moral norms held true and plumb for centuries, pointing by gravity towards the center of the earth, exactly defining with rigor and wisdom the boundaries we seem to want blurred. And I wonder about how human nature, unchanged, mocks both the convolutions and the ubiquitous noise of our technology, and marks as silly our fatuous, doomed attempts at materialistic perfectibility.

“Thus, He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in his hand. The Lord said to me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold I am about to put a plumb line in the midst of My people….”  Amos 7: 7-8a

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Father’s Day

“This is the price you pay for having a great father. You get the wonder, the joy, the tender moments – and you get the tears at the end too.”  Harlan Coben

I heard my father sing last night, which is infrequent since he died on his birthday in 1982.  We have only three recordings of his voice, all done by my brother Barry with a tape deck brought up to the choir loft at Blessed Sacrament Church when my Dad sang at my cousin Mary’s wedding. Here’s one of them in a footnote:  Sacrament Divine.[i]

He sang many times at that church. My earliest indelible memories of church are sitting in that loft alone with him and the organist as I watched the Latin Mass unfold below from a privileged vantage point. In last night’s dream, possibly prompted by visiting some new friends, one of whom, Caroline, still possesses the lovely Irish lilt of her girlhood near Derry in Northern Ireland. Or possibly my dream was a most welcome Father’s Day gift with a promise of singing once again with my Dad.

Dad had a rare Irish tenor with a good range and steady, but never a voice lesson that I know of, unless his mother taught him some things. He bemoaned excessive vibrato and would have been appalled at the current fashion of so many superfluous notes and flourishes that bedevil modern interpretation. The ability to hold a single note without unnecessary side adventures was a valuable attribute for my father. Mario Lanza and later the incomparable Luciano Pavarotti were favorites of his. To put it into his perspective, Bing Crosby passed muster, but Frank Sinatra was a bit too creative. And Elvis, well, Elvis was a pretender and a heretic. I’m happy for him that he missed Tupac.

He loved to sing to the crowd at any opportunity, especially the old Irish and Irish American songs. From “Mother Machree” and “Wild Irish Rose” to “Clancy Lowered the Boom.” After a few drinks he might venture to the piano and belt out an exuberant “Blue Moon” with some inexpert, but enthusiastic chords. But the show stopper of course was “Danny Boy.” There would always follow a silence with long stares and even some tears after his “Danny Boy.”

His mother was an Irish immigrant of the County Galway Lannons; she was a professional singer in touring vaudeville shows. She died young of tuberculosis, and he never knew his father, who disappeared into the mist during WWI. The Irish aunts never spoke of the father. Neither did my Dad. There was an interpretation that senior died in France in the trenches, but there remains the possibility he returned to his wandering ways as a vaudeville show manager. Despite some effort, I have not yet found out the truth, and all that know have long since left the stage. The aunts and uncles took her in and her baby in 1917, so the culture in which my father was raised with a French name was thoroughly Irish.

World War Two killed my father but took thirty-seven years to finish the job. Like many other combat veterans, he became deeply addicted to tobacco with the habit reinforced by free cartons of Lucky Strikes passed out by the American Tobacco Company and the U.S. Army. Captured in the Ardennes at the Battle of the Bulge, he endured terrifying threats from his captors. Twice he was lined up in the late winter snow with fellow prisoners, and his mocking guards dropped the tailgate of the truck that led them into the field, unveiled the machine gun behind the canopy and jacked home the first round. After a tense half a minute, they would laugh and move out. The second time, his captors simply left the prisoners in the field and drove off with Patton’s army in close pursuit, and my father was free.

He married his sweetheart within a few weeks of returning home. She was the twin sister of his closest Army buddy, my uncle Sonny Laracy, my Dad’s partner on scouting missions in a Jeep for the Ninth Armored Infantry. He finished up as a sergeant. With his love, Betty, now ninety-seven, they parented six children who love them still and miss their Dad.

Happy Father’s Day, Pop. You sang wonderfully in my dream – note perfect. I hope to sing with you again.

[i] .

 

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Spring Dance

“I am going to try and pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen.”  Anne Lamont

In New England, spring always surprises. Not so much at its coming or pace or progression of blooming, which I’ve come to count on as the annual fulfillment of winter hope, but with its intensity. The utter greenness and resurrection, lush, with those fragile hues of new leaves that soon harden into the deeper, more lasting, larger leaves of summer. Welcome chores soon follow:  planting gardens, fertilizing, then mowing the lawn. Perhaps cutting down and digging out roots from a disappointing shrub or planting that we tolerated through the summer, fall and winter, but could not abide when contrasted with the glory of rebirth.

With the colors and morning sounds of the returning doves and sparrows comes the smell of spring, a rich mixture of soil, flower scent, abundant varied pollens and rain at dawn. When nearby Escobar dairy farm workers spread cow manure on the corn fields, and the wind shifts from the east and Narragansett Bay, the moist, fecund odor offends some, but not me. The heifer yard fills as the late winter calves mature into adolescence but are not ready yet for breeding and the beginning of their lives in the big western field with the other milk producing cows – the daily rhythm of leisure, hanging out with the other girls, feeding and milking. On our sunset walks past the yard, they are curious, friendly, hoping for a treat and run to welcome us when I greet them.

“In spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”  Margaret Atwood

 As May slips into June, and summer beckons, the traffic on Aquidneck Island picks up on East and West Main Road with beach comers and Newport boating and dining visitors; Fort Adams hosts the Volvo sailing races, and Saturday evening polo matches commence in Portsmouth. The annual chowda cook off and contest are the launch: Newport is a foodie city. Soon will come the music festivals – jazz and folk at Fort Adams, and classical ensembles in the mansions. The clubs and restaurants host everything from quiet piano bars to hot, open window country rock, and sweaty dancers seeking an off-shore night breeze spill out on the sidewalk between sets.

For us, however, June and music carries with it a ballet recital at Portsmouth High School. When our daughters, Angela and Meg, were young, recitals and performances were in Providence at PPAC and the Veteran’s Auditorium: Festival Ballet and School: Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Firebird. Here, though, it is the Island Moving Company, Newport Ballet School and granddaughters. Three so far: Gianna, Ellie and Mary, but watching three-year-old Josie last night, swaying, laughing and jumping in tempo as her sisters danced, she will soon follow. Most likely, so will Adelaide, Meg’s baby daughter, in Southern California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As their mother Angela and Aunt Meg before them, the sisters learn that music is not broken and is far richer than hip hop, computers and synthesizers can deliver: more complex, transcendent and cohesive with the true and the beautiful. The joining of their bodies to the grace of the music, as they experience and develop their own grace, is a spring wonder of its own, a planting and a greening for a lifetime.

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed…Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”  Henry David Thoreau

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Diner

“Everyone is entitled to his own nostalgia.”  James Wolcott

We have long favored funky short order breakfast diners in small towns; eggs over easy with crisp bacon and superlative home fries, especially accompanied by a ‘never empty’ cup of better than average coffee with the good company of diner regulars is one of our favorite dates and has been for fifty years. Only a slightly overweight waitress with a quick, knowing smile could improve upon the experience, and often does. Not sure why. This may indicate a skewed character with some undefined deep flaw yet identified. But I’m comfortable with the risk.

Earlier this week we headed to pick up our completed tax returns at the office in Swansea, where they have been calculated for us for over twenty-five years. I was coming from a predawn visit to the gym followed by a semi-annual doctor’s checkup. No prior time for breakfast, so we stopped at a local diner we had not previously tried. Another guilty pleasure is checking out new diners. One stop is sufficient to rate the home fries and coffee; the rest of breakfast is hard to ruin. Whether we ever go a second time is almost entirely based on those two criteria. The parking lot was full of clearly local cars with only a couple less than five years old. A good sign.

The menu was on the chalk board and one simple sheet of paper encapsulated in plastic. Each item was unembellished with elaborate description. The specials included an omelet with a spicy Portuguese sausage. The odor was coffee, bacon with a faint overtone of old grease and a combination of worn wood and linoleum curled in the corners. White eight by eleven notices were pinned to a bulletin board and taped on some windows advertising local handyman services, school plays and an upcoming meeting at town hall regarding changing rules at the transfer and recycling station.

The waitress was just this side of indifferent, but wary and quick to our booth. Perfect. Most of the tables were occupied and almost every round red Naugahyde stool on a stainless-steel post at the counter had an ample behind on it, even a few plumber’s cracks. Knowing laughter at the counter with a well-known customer. Our waitress pretended shock, smiled lasciviously, and proclaimed for the room, “And you kiss your mutha with that mouth!” She was not crabbing over towards a safe space.  We were for the most part ignored by the regulars, but it was a benign neglect. Catch an eye and get a quick smile, but the furtive eye was not easily caught. Most were involved in conversation with two or three fellow diners, conversations that started twenty years ago with daily or weekly updates.

“I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” William F. Buckley

In my experience, the regular customers of a local diner are the same everywhere, just different in specifics. This week’s morning crowd was mostly north of sixty, more men than women, some seventies carry over long hair, a couple of beards and a few unshaven, but clean faced maybe a week or so ago. Although the place didn’t allow smoking inside, quite a few of the diners sported a pair of nicotine stained fingers and looked like they’d be more comfortable with a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray near their coffee mug.  Without taking a poll, I assume most did not have many letters after their signature. A half dozen or so looked well educated in their green youth, but their schooling was not at Brown or Rhode Island School of Design, more likely in the Mekong Delta or Khe Sanh.  Three or four of the tin ceiling panels had been replaced with posters honoring diners who no longer could eat breakfast there, grease dimmed posters with names, ranks, nicknames like Doc and Gunny, medals, military outfits and mottos. One customer sat by himself wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and a thousand-yard stare, drinking coffee, but had no breakfast on the counter.

The most recent candidate of the people famously classified the diner’s good folks as deplorables, and the remark may have cost her the presidency.  Their hands are calloused, and their backs stooped a bit with wear and tear. They believe in a functioning border, but for the most part lack xenophobia; working hard was valued, not working was not.  Marriage and family, even though some failed at it, was assumed to be the basic unit of a well-ordered society, and marriage is between one man and one woman with children the natural expectation and responsibility.  Almost universally, they knew something vital was bleeding out in a culture they wanted desperately to preserve. Maybe it couldn’t be well articulated, but they would vote to try to stem the loss. I prefer their company to the sophisticated most of the time.

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”  Harper Lee

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California Dreaming

“Best way to live in California is to be from somewheres else.” ‘No Country for Old Men,’ Cormac McCarthy

We came to Ladera Ranch for a baptism. And stayed for a while. Our youngest granddaughter, Adelaide, took the plunge. Her parents decided for her at five months of age, but the indelible mark for all eternity is the same. She seemed to enjoy the experience, and the lunch back at Marty and Meg’s house, catered by a local Mexican food restaurant, was superb. The beer wasn’t bad either.

Father Angelos officiated and impressed on the five sets of families present both the permanence of the commitment and the fruits of the promise. He is a lovely guy and a good priest at St. Kilian Church in nearby Mission Viejo. A large parish, each weekend the seven masses have full pews for the most part. The homilies are inspired and loving, but they do not lack authoritative teaching. No Catholic Lite at St. Kilian. He greeted each family, as he did when we attended Mass the following day on Sunday. Big choir, well led, mostly traditional; the whole congregation sang. I’d estimate over nine hundred at the Mass we attended.

Marty and Meg are most gracious hosts, and we enjoyed many nights of leisurely, healthy and delicious meals. Perfect balance really, as we took some side-trips to Selma’s (excellent) pizza and In and Out, my favorite fast food burger joint, complete with chocolate shakes and something called animal fries (don’t ask, but wonderful.)  Then there were Scott’s Donuts and Wendi’s Donuts, which in the interests of supporting local businesses, Marty and I felt we must patronize regularly.  Lots of walking trails in their neighborhood, which we enjoyed daily with Mila (the best puggle in the universe), Adelaide (the best five-month-old on the planet), Meg and Marty when he wasn’t working. Desert vegetation, a nearby deep canyon with steep paths and a mountain lion.  Mountains to the east.

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”  ‘On The Road, Jack Kerouac

We took two side trips to Laguna Beach for lunch at the organic vegan frozen yogurt place, ‘Active Culture,’ with quinoa avocado salads, again to balance out the donuts. One Sunday, we all went for a long walk on the beach around sunset. Rita and I spent a relaxed afternoon at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano the day before the baptism with a sumptuous lunch of salmon for Rita and a creative grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup at Sundried Tomato. But eating wasn’t all we did while we were there. Hours of conversation, watching Winter Olympics (at six o’clock instead of nine – just one of the West Coast advantages).  Adelaide prefers hockey and figure skating. She eschews curling, as do most human beings, except Scandinavians, the Scotch and the British. Enough said.

We shopped various times at ‘Buy Buy Baby,’ Whole Foods and a quick trip to Nordstrom’s bargain outlet to pick up the shirt and tie I forgot for the baptism. Walking around the store with a baby in the stroller was enjoyable, as were hours of holding that warm, sweet smelling tiny girl while she played, cuddled, goofed around and fussed. A couple of times she fell fast asleep in my arms. I think that is an experience that never ages.

For our birthdays (we both turned 72) Rita and I ventured north for three days. First to the Reagan Library in the Simi Valley, which has spectacular views, a full-size well used Airforce One, a Marine One helicopter, replica Oval Office, a piece of the Berlin Wall and hundreds of displays of videos and President Reagan’s papers from handwritten high school essays to his presidency. One oddity: the brand-new suit with a jagged hole in it that was cut off President Reagan in the emergency room after John Hinkley shot and almost killed him while trying to impress Jodie Foster.

The second day we drove from Oxnard where we were staying near the Channel Islands Beach up to Santa Barbara and the Franciscan Mission there. At a noon Mass, we received our Ash Wednesday ashes and blessing. Reminded by some displays in the museum, we remembered from San Juan the Abraham Lincoln – Franciscan Missions connection. During the bloody Mexican Revolution, the new radical secular government decided that it would benefit their connected families to confiscate Church land and give it to their friends, turning them into instantly wealthy people. Of course, it is not unusual in revolutionary affairs to outlaw worship and kill worshipers and priests, but Mexico rivaled its spiritual forebear in France for brutality. A few decades later, the Mexican government lost a war to America, and in settling accounts also lost California. Just a few weeks prior to his assassination, President Lincoln returned the missions to the Franciscans. Not all the abundant, arable land, which had been dispersed, but at least the churches and immediate surrounds for gardens, vineyards and orchards, which remain to this day; the old buildings extraordinary havens of peace. Mass has been celebrated continually in the Old Mission at Santa Barbara (under deep cover during the revolution) since Saint Junipero Serra founded it in the eighteenth century. The litany of the missions is a litany of the history of California: San Francisco to San Diego.

On the third day, we meandered without haste south down through Malibu and Santa Monica back into Los Angeles down the Pacific Coast Highway, with the hills and mountains to the east and the vastness of the ocean to our west with frequent stops along the way. One striking feature of our stay in Oxnard were the miles of fields and orchards of oranges, lemons and avocadoes. The fields were full of vegetables and flowers that are sold at florists and supermarkets throughout the country. Nothing quite matches a lemon or orange picked daily locally. New England has no answer to those, except to cede this ground and come up with its own Macintoshes and Red Delicious pretenders.

The fields were also full of migrant workers. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Without them, America would be impoverished, and not just for lack of fresh produce. At one of the local churches in Oxnard, the Ash Wednesday services were scheduled at 5, 5:30, 6, 6:30 and 7 AM for the workers to be able to attend. This striking reminder of the universality of the Church resonates still. What a marvelous, warm and friendly people live here to bless us all.

A final memory is the crazed drivers of the eight and ten lane suicide runs called freeways. A moment’s hesitation while a stranger tries to figure out a lane change or turn earns an instant amplified horn ten inches off the rear bumper, or a ninety mile an hour Porsche passing on the right like it was Le Mans. I know New England drivers, especially in Boston, can be rude, but Bostonians can be generally abrupt and impatient on or off the road, so this is not a disappointment when they revert to type on Commonwealth Avenue. Californians are replete with smiles and polite friendly replies and pleasantries, but get them into their automobiles, and they reveal themselves as sociopaths.

Just kidding, Marty.  Sort of.

“Americans will put up with anything, as long as it doesn’t block traffic.”  Dan Rather

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Second Half

“Love unlocks doors and open windows that weren’t even there before.” Mignon McLaughlin

We celebrated our fifty first wedding anniversary this week with a long walk on Sachuest Point and a stylish feast at one of our favorite restaurants, West Main Pizza. Our friend, Father Joe McKenna, who lives in Portland, Maine, sent a story a couple of months ago about an Irish couple from Rumford who celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Because this milestone is reached far less frequently than with earlier generations, the local paper sent a stringer to do a Saturday feature story on the event. The reporter thought that it might work best if she softened the interview with the husband with some easy questions to start. “What did you do to celebrate your twenty fifth anniversary?” she asked. “Well,” said the earnest gentleman, “I took her to Dublin.” “Wow,” said the reporter, “how are you going to top that? What are you going to do for your fiftieth?” “I’m going to pick her up,” said he.

I’m not suggesting that to live fifty years together requires a twenty-five-year respite. On past anniversaries, I have posted about my beautiful wife[i]. This time, I’ll write a bit about our relationship, and what I’ve learned along the way. As with all shared loves, while different in the specifics, the topography is common in most long-term marriages. We enjoy quiet times and talks together and many of the same activities:  walks or bike rides on pretty trails, reading and discussing each other’s current books and articles, going to new places and revisiting old ones. Our entertainment needs are for the most part simple and modest, our favorites are free or inexpensive. A visit to a park, a beach, a museum or a library delights us both. A warm, welcoming, modest home with a good roof, a woodstove and working plumbing is fine with us. We laugh and hug.  A lot.

Our biggest extravagance is travel occasionally and live theater. We like pub food and short order cooks at funky breakfast places. We like the same people almost invariably. Our shared faith is central to our daily lives. The four children we conceived in love and raised together, along with the five grandchildren (so far) are, after our faith and our marriage, our most precious gifts. Reading and learning new things are important to us; each of us finishes at least two or three books a month, many times more than that. History, faith, philosophy, politics, art, humanities, biographies and cultural trends among our favorite topics. We enjoy the same kind of music, albeit eclectic, classical concert music, Italian opera, bluegrass, jazz, occasionally some country and old-time rock and roll. From Bob Dylan, Willy Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Doc Watson and Nitty Gritty Dirtband to Mozart, Bach, Chopin and Verdi, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker and Little Richard to Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Art Pepper.

Friday, Rita went over to Pete and Angela’s to help get the kids together early to go to their co-op parent/children’s group with Angela. Afterwards, we went together to the Portsmouth Transfer Center (i.e. the dump) in our 2008 Tundra (Rita loves to go to the dump with me in the truck), then to pick up a piece of milled granite for a hearthstone for a woodstove, next to Home Depot, and a cup of coffee at our favorite local café, Anna D’s. Came home, built the mantle for the woodstove hearth with about twenty bucks worth of pine. Went for a walk past Escobar’s Farm near our house towards sunset. Too tired to go to the gym, we read for a while (“Seven Story Mountain” for Rita, “Federalist Papers” for me) and fell asleep early. It was a perfect day.

We wake up almost every morning full of gratitude.

 “When you marry, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this person into your old age?  Everything else in marriage is transitory.” Frederick Nietzsche

Two overriding understandings from experience. The first is that you will not always like each other, especially sometime in the first ten years. You will see and have seen each other at your most self-sacrificing, courageous, decisive, persevering, loving and generous moments. You will also see each other when you are most petty, vain, irresolute, cowardly, defeatist and selfish. Dating and marriage, short term romance and marriage are very different things. No hiding the ignoble and short temper after a major setback at work, or sleepless nights with a sick child. Get over it. It will pass, and a deeper, lasting love will re-form when you can push past the ephemeral worries. The troubles (a dying fire, malaise, financial strain, a wandering eye, seemingly intolerable quirks you didn’t sign on for) may seem insurmountable; they are not. On the other side of this creaky, narrow bridge is solid ground again. Press on, ask and give forgiveness freely and retake the solid ground.

The second, and perhaps the caution hardest to internalize is that during those inevitable difficulties, and indeed for the rest of our lives, realize this: the most heroic challenge we will face is in the mirror. The shortcomings of any relationship start with me, and because they are my own, they will reappear at some point in any new relationship, especially one that seems so effortless in the beginning, sure to be the balm to heal the wounds and it urges us to abandon the original commitment and promises. But we will always return eventually to the cracks in the mirror. From this self inflicted heartbreak we cannot escape; there is a perfectly good reason.

In each human person, at our core, there is a “seed of eternity,” a tiny hole that will rip open at some point, however expertly and firmly we try to glue the elegant wallpaper over it. A long topic for another time, and eventually a spiritual discussion, but for this post, just this: All of us, starting young when we let our minds drift to it, and certainly older out of necessity, will acknowledge our unavoidable end. Our mortality lurks, and there is no escape. Oblivion or something else, we all look over the edge into the stormy waters and see what the theologian Karl Barth called “das Nichtage, the nothing, that which stands opposed to God’s creative intentions, difficulties both interior and exterior, difficulties physical, psychological, and spiritual.”[ii]

That we must confront, and about the “nothing” we will spend a lifetime gaining wisdom. No gym or medicine will thwart its inexorable pull. No relationship, even the best of marriages can fill all the gaps, smooth all the wrinkles, calm all the storms. For that, more is needed, infinitely more, and if we put that whole burden on the person whom we trust and love most, and who most trusts and loves us, it will break things, especially those fragile things at our center.

“A happy marriage is a long conversation that always seems too short.” Andre Maurois

 

 

[i] Last year: Half Way to a Century and another anniversary before that: Anniversary Waltz

[ii] From one of Bishop Robert Barron’s daily meditations.

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Rockee Sing, Dad, Do Rockee Sing

“it’s little, and we saw it and we knew what it meant. You remember that for me.” From “His Last Game,” Brian Doyle [i]

We read to our youngest girls every night at bedtime, as we had with our older children, and when they were still of fit on my knee age, I would hold both, a book held between them, in the chipped, painted black frame wooden rocking chair with the woven wicker seat and back. As they grew sleepy, and so did I, we would rock together, and I would sing softly. Sometimes a slightly misremembered song my father sang to us. “Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. Hush, now don’t you cry. Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. It’s an Irish lullaby.” [ii]

Another regular lullaby was “Lord, You are more precious than silver. Lord, You are more costly than gold.  Lord, You are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares to You.” When Angela was three and Meg was born, I brought Angela to meet Meg now outside Rita’s womb. As we were leaving Women and Infants Hospital in Providence to go home after the introduction, Angela, our koala bear hugger, was wrapped around me. Walking back to the parking lot, she sang in a clear, but sleepy voice, “Lord You are.”  [iii]

Thousands of nights, week over week, year over year. I have a vivid memory of one night, while smelling their freshly washed hair against my cheek and gently rocking, a memory filled with longing. I remember thinking that there would be a last night I would do this, and I wouldn’t know when it ended. I don’t remember the last night.

When they were little, we started with books like “Cat in the Hat” with Sally and the troublesome house wrecking Thing One and Thing Two. “Maple Hill Farm” with its multiple, memorable animal characters. Beatrix Potter’s “Tale of Peter Rabbit” with Peter, the fearsome Mr. McGregor and Flopsy Mopsy. So many books now in boxes or with granddaughters.

As they grew, we moved to the couch or pillows on the floor. The whole Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series with a house on the prairie built of cut sod and thatched roof or a house in the woods built of logs. Dreamy, restless, loving, hardworking Charles. Resolute, long suffering, cheerful Caroline. Mischievous, adventurous Laura and kind, quiet Mary who loved her little sister and was struck blind during an illness and eventually became a teacher. The bargain Caroline negotiated with the terrifying Plains Indian in full war paint when Charles was away. “The Long Winter” we read in a cold New England winter, and we cuddled and shivered under blankets. The rope Charles strung from house to barn so that during one of the many, interminable blizzards, he would not lose his way to drag down hay for the animals and milk the cow, essential daily chores. Without the rope we were told, he could easily miss the barn in the blinding snow, although it was only ten yards from the house. And in missing it, perish to be found in the spring when the melting came.

The entire Chronicles of Narnia series with the handsome Prince Caspian and the heroic mouse, Reepicheep: Unhand the tail! No fear! No retreat!  The Dawn Treader. The Magician’s Nephew. Marvelous, unforgettable C.S. Lewis stories. Most of all the first: “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” with Peter, Lucy and the traitorous Edmund sent to live with the professor to escape the London Blitz. Through the magic wardrobe: The White Witch, Ice Queen. Poor friendly, brave, frozen Mr. Tumnus. And the noble, suffering, then triumphant Aslan, Lion: kind and terrifying; sacrificed, humiliated, then resurrected to redeem with overwhelming power the ice-covered, bleak land from the White Witch’s cruel spell.

Later we read Lewis’s dear friend J.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” with pleas each night for just one more chapter. Bilbo and Gollum, goblins, hobbits, dwarves, elves, a dragon and wizards. Literally wonderful. One December, we read Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” with chains, doorknobs, ghosts, Bob Cratchit and Scrooge, Tiny Tim and small crutches enshrined in the corner of the simple kitchen, shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Future. And tombstones. Reawakening and miracles. So many books, so many years

We continued to read aloud each night as a family into their pre-teen years. One summer, when Angela and Meg were older, college and high school, we rented a cottage on Great Pond in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, near my brother Martin’s summer home. Rita and I couldn’t travel up there until Sunday, but Meg and Angela wanted to go up and open the camp on Saturday when the rental period began. The nights were still chilly. While the invitation was open at Marty’s to stay there, the sisters wanted to stay with each other in our camp – listen for the night call of the loons and watch for the reflection of stars on the water like they did so many times at the other Maine camp on Webb Lake in Weld, where we vacationed for a decade every summer. When the moon rose, and the night grew quiet over Great Pond, they curled up on the couch and read to each other.

Some memories dim and become blurry like a hazy, slightly out of focus special effect in an art film.  Some do not.

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem — “Out of shadows and phantasms into Truth.”  Epitaph – Cardinal John Henry Newman  

[i] Lovely, lyrical, poignant, simply and profoundly true. Written upon his brother Kevin’s death. https://notredameclassof1969blog.blogspot.com/2017/05/his-last-game-by-brian-doyle-78-for-his.html?view=flipcard&m=1

[ii] Toora, Loora, Loora. Bing Crosby.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aw9B49epS_M

[iii] Lord You Are. Paul McClure, Bethel Church. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2hGhWiAMQk

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Morning Dews and Damps

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

From our bungalow on Birch Street in Portsmouth, I exit to the bottom of the hill on Orchard View and turn left on Middle Road by Escobar Farm. Middle Road to the end, right on Union to just before West Main Road, left on Jepson Street to the end at Oliphant Lane and back is exactly ten miles. I hold dear my bike ride at five or six am past nurseries and fields of corn, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and strawberries. From the top of Middle Road, one of the highest points on Aquidneck Island, on a clear morning the West Bay is clearly visible and to the east in glimpses, the Sakonnet River, which runs fourteen miles between Mount Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound.

If I’m running late, the strawberry pickers are starting to gather. On the weekends, the farm owners drag a small wood framed snack stand out to field with a tractor to sell snacks and drinks to the U-Pick-Them crowd. At this point of the summer, the magnolias, dogwoods, apples, cherries, horse chestnuts, azaleas and rhododendrons have past their flowering splendor, but the hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susans, daisies, hostas, Queen Anne’s lace and an occasional tree of heaven are holding their own. Everywhere, in every direction, is quiet and the smells of summer. Most of the farms are arable, but there are a few chickens, ducks and dairy cows. One field near the reservoir on Union, just past the golf course, hosts four beef critters, lazily grazing their way to qualifying for their purpose as steaks and hamburger in the fall or early winter.

Colonial houses dating back to the revolution along with a collection of center chimney capes and newer colonials and ranches are distributed unevenly along the way. There are several small developments of newer homes with farmer’s porches and attached garages with large lots for the most part, many of which back up to planted fields, reservoir or golf course.

Traffic is light, and almost without exception the few cars and pickup trucks slow and swing wide around the frequent bicycle riders. Unlike last year, which for some reason was a bad year for cotton tails, I greet adolescent rabbits a dozen times on my ten -mile ride. Don’t know their names; they remain reticent and watchful. The red-tail hawks look well fed.

“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Susan B. Anthony

At the base of a short hill on Union Street just past the U PICK blueberry farm, a few wicker baskets of haphazard common garden vegetables are often displayed for sale on the honor system with a metal cash box. They sit on a flat spot atop the stone wall in front of a rambling two story white house with several additions and out buildings, some well-considered, others more like orphaned after thoughts; the house is just this side of neglected with a slate roof and washed-out, chalky paint. The yard is losing a long transition from tended gardens to an encroaching wooded glade of mostly maples. Curious, I investigated its history and found it was registered as a National Historic site as “Oak Glen.” Julia Ward Howe died of pneumonia here at 91 in 1910 where she had spent many summers.

As a young girl in New York City, she met Charles Dickens through her father, a prominent Wall Street stock broker and her mother, the poet Julia Rush Cutler. Of a literary bent, privately educated, she published learned essays, biographies, plays and poetry. Her husband in a less than happy marriage was Dr. Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; they raised their children in South Boston. She spent many summers here in Portsmouth and much time in the “Yellow House” in Gardiner, Maine, apparently to get away from her husband. Well known as first an abolitionist, she outraged many with her unflattering descriptions of blacks in her book, “A Trip to Cuba.” While disliking slavery, she did not believe in the equality of races. Apparently “all men are created equal,” although an admirable ideal, did not mean all that it implies. Her most passionate cause was women’s suffrage and equality; I suspect that the landed gentry were a bit more equal than an Irish washerwoman taking in Mrs. Howe’s laundry.

At various times, she was president of both the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and the New England Suffrage Association, which she co-founded. She also founded and served as president for twenty-one years of the Association of American Women, advocating for women’s education.  At some point, she eschewed her father’s strict Calvinist faith in favor of the less demanding, and more fashionable among the literati, Universalist creed.

Mrs. Howe was best remembered for her song writing, and was inducted posthumously into the Song Writers Hall of Fame in 1970. After meeting Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a friend suggested she pen new lyrics to the same tune as the abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body” with the line about “moldering in the grave.” Her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” still rouses many a worship service and patriotic gathering. Four thousand people sang it at her memorial service, as it had been sung at all her speaking engagements for many years.  In 1870, she unsuccessfully lobbied for the country to celebrate a “Mother’s Day” on June second. Two of her daughters collaborated on telling her story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1916. Like so many who left a legacy, she was imperfect, an admixture of the admirable and the flawed.

Oak Glen still on its original 4.7 acres sits unnoticed by most next to a similarly neglected small historic cemetery on Union Street in Portsmouth like the faded matron of a once elegant family. Oak Glen has become for me a symbol of ephemeral celebrity, but her signature work, the words of which came to her in a dream, remains. We sang it at church on the Fourth of July as it has been sung for over a century.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of human life.”  H.G. Wells

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Beer Cans, Sandwich Wrappers and Other Flotsam

“Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.”  The Brothers Karamazov,  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sunset from Dummer’s Beach campground, Webb Lake

When our son Gabe was seven or eight, we were driving back from Portland to our home in Farmington, Maine. At some point on Route 202 near Winthrop, he rid himself of a pesky bit of trash out the open back window of our Ford. In Maine, then as now, littering is a hanging offense, and a state trooper spotted the infraction and did a quick U turn behind us. A mile or so down the road, he pulled us over.  He politely asked if I knew what we had perpetrated, and I pleaded ignorance. He instructed me on the serious nature of our offense. Gabe in our backseat looked like a puppy who just ate the stew meat off the kitchen table.

I asked the trooper, who understood exactly what had happened, if Gabe would have to go to prison or just work off his fine in home confinement until he was twenty-one. We negotiated a just settlement, and the trooper took me at my word we would reverse course, find the offending litter and retrieve it, which we promptly did with no Maine State Police vehicle following us. Gabriel learned from his experience, and it was many years before he had to spend a night in jail.

We’ve noticed on our bike rides here in Maine that roadside litter is much rarer than in Rhode Island, where it is a plague – an occasional yahoo beer can on these rural roads in Maine, but if we see three in a mile, it is unusual. In Rhode Island, just past the welcome to beautiful Rhode Island signs, the mess begins along the road, even on the beaches after hours. I’ve often wondered what combination of neglectful parenting, ignorance and arrogance prompts passersby to believe it is someone else’s job to clean up after them.

I think the lack of jeopardy may account for some of it in Rhode Island-I’ve never seen littering laws enforced; and in Maine residents and visitors alike harbor a respect, almost a reverence, for the beauty around nearly every turn.

“Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever old, ever new; late have I loved thee. Lo, you were within, but I was outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.”  Confessions of St. Augustine [i]

 As we stood silently for long minutes watching the sunset just to the south of Tumbledown across Webb Lake, I was struck anew with the gratuitous beauty of sun, clouds, mountains and water. Why was nature made beautiful instead of pallid and enervating? Why are human beings such that their senses and spirits perceive the beauty? What grace and gift is at work here? The same grace and gift moves artists of music, form and hue to create as best we can a reflected beauty. And, most importantly, what Truth is to be found congruent with the Beauty?

When we fail to ask such questions, when we persist without respite in the endless business of commerce and noise, amusements and entertainments precisely to avoid asking such questions, we dodge not just blundering through some sophomoric speculations, but hazard missing why we are on this big blue beautiful ball hurtling at unimaginable speed around the galaxy and through the void: we risk missing the entire point. We fail to pay attention to the jeopardy of forgetting our teleology, the end for which we exist as separate from the other creatures on this fragile planet, and perhaps from the other creatures (if there are any) in this universe.

In an Associated Press syndicated technology article this week in the Lewiston Sun Journal, the latest “big leap” in Apple technology was lauded. “Augmented reality” (AR) will be rolled out in the next iteration of software for iPads and iPhones with built in capability for entrepreneurial “killer apps” to layer on enhancement to our staid, just plain old reality. Related to virtual reality, it will feature the ability, like the washed-up “Pokemon Go” phenomenon, to allow us to visualize in our surroundings magical apparitions that aren’t there. Millions will be able to spend billions of their finite, irreplaceable hours distracting themselves with these wonderful apparitions because, apparently, we don’t have enough distraction already. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are frantically working to roll out their own AR versions. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, hailed AR as “profound technology.” Indeed. “I am so excited about it, I just want to yell and scream!” exclaimed Mr. Cook.  Exactly so, I say; I have a similar urge. [ii]

I would make a modest proposal to Mr. Cook and to you, dear reader. Perhaps we could better spend a little time undistracted, unentertained, without a screen, with some unaugmented reality. And in that quiet without noise and interruption, without beer cans and roadside trash, ask ourselves some questions. I would suggest that a sunset over Webb Lake, looking towards Mount Blue and Tumbledown might be a good place to start.

“We’re all haunted by (death) in one way or another. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to push away, you just get a cappuccino. But, yes, you’re haunted by it in a different way (as you get older).  I feel its presence. I feel it in my sleep, in dreams, in waking.” Sam Shepard, who died this week at 73.

 

[i] Quotes from Dostoevsky and Augustine were cited in “Strangers in a Strange Land” by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia. In writing about these things, Archbishop Chaput quotes some lines from “Evening,” a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke and continues with his own comments:

Slowly now the evening changes his garments

held for him by a rim of ancient trees;

you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you

one sinking and one rising toward the stars.

 

And you are left, to none belonging wholly,

not so dark as a silent house, nor quite

so surely pledged unto eternity

as that which grows to star and climbs the

night.

 

To you is left (unspeakably confused)

your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,

so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping

all,

is changed in you by turns to stone and

stars.

 Philosophers and psychologists have offered many different theories about the nature of the human person. But few have captured the human condition better than Rilke does in those twelve lines. We are creatures made for heaven, but we are born of this earth. We love the beauty of this world, but we sense that there’s something more behind that beauty. Our longing for that “something” pulls us outside of ourselves.

 [ii] Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy, TEXx talk, Adam Alter

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