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After weeks of staying home to avoid the coronavirus, we citizens of the United States are now being encouraged to venture out to a few approved small businesses, e.g., beauty salons, tattoo parlors, and a few other places. Why did our lawmakers and choose these places?? I have no idea.
What do you think?? I guess I do need a haircut. But, a tattoo? Really? Of what?
Fifty years ago today, my friends and I drove up to the “entrance” to Woodstock, the festival: two local cops, wearing shorts and holding clipboards, stood near two saw horses painted yellow (would we call it a barricade? Not in today’s lingo).
Almost like magic, the four of us produced our actual tickets to the next “3 days of peace & music,” and one of the cops shook his head and told us “No, sorry, the festival is full.” I was at the wheel of Alice’s baby-blue VW squareback, feeling momentarily speechless. Everybody else laughed because we did have our tickets. We had followed the rules. Paid in advance. Drove 1500 miles to get there. Etc., etc., etc. I remember staring at the cop’s clipboard for a few seconds. Then the usual back and forth But we have tickets. Blah blah no way. Turn around. No. But we have tickets. Blah. No. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel.
What Happened Next . . .
Beyond the two cops and their clipboards and yellow construction-site saw horses, I could see a sea of people. And you know what?? (What?) Me and my friends were right there about to join them all! We had arrived at the festival a day early (Thursday) and nothing or no one was going to stop us. Be here now, right? Go home? Never. We had our tents. We had some food. We had other sustenance. “Thanks very much, sir” I said. Then with a big smile, I gunned the engine, and drove right past the laws and into the dusty rise that served as a road.
In a kind of Biblical way, the seas parted to embrace us: Bodies moved aside so we could make our way in to a bumpy, lumpy space between some other cars. We had arrived for our 3 days of peace and music. And we had fun. Yes we did . . . groovy.
Will This Ever Happen Again?
If you believe in magic, yes it will.
When Stephen McKinney and his little sister enrolled at the Knotty Oak grammar school the year I started 7th grade, in fall 1960, John F. Kennedy was a few months away from becoming President of the United States. Change was in the air.
Coincidentally, 1960 was also the year Harper Lee published her best-selling novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. My mother belonged to “The Book of the Month Club.” Mockingbird had just arrived the other day in the mail. I found her reading it one afternoon in the kitchen. The movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch came to the big screen in 1962.
But until Stephen McKinney and his sister showed up at Knotty Oak, I didn’t think about race much. I didn’t think about people much, except Indians and buffalo, and polar bears. I was still watching “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” on black-and-white television. Until that very day, in my mind, Black people were Civil War survivors still escaping from the South, or friends of Huckleberry Finn, or storybook characters in the Golden book, Little Black Sambo, where tigers turned to butter under a palm tree. Rhode Island was mostly white–that’s the way it was.
A few times, at the dinner table,we did talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Civil Rights and the Constitution’s All men are created equal. My Uncle Rollo said that he had “a great deal of respect” for the hard-working black sailors he captained in the Navy during WWII. “Honorable men, every last one of them,” he said as he puffed on his pipe and sipped his brandy and coffee after dinner.
One of the bookcases in the living room included many volumes on the life of Abraham Lincoln, and even more on Winston Churchill, Normandy, and how we won every war so far.
What’s This Got to Do With Race?
From the time I was four until I turned ten, my mom and I rode the bus twelve miles to Providence for doctor appointments. Along the way, we saw Black people walking around here and there or standing at bus stops with shopping bags or eating in restaurants, but for the most part, neither she nor I paid much attention. First of all, the bus exhaust made me feel nauseated. So I stayed low. We had no Black friends. Where would we find them? Again, I was very aware of the Civil War, and that in the South, Black people had suffered as slaves, but New England and the Union Army had freed them all. We were the good guys. Like the Lone Ranger and Florence Nightingale.
In other words, what did I know about what race really meant or if it meant anything at all. What could be as simple as different skin tones?
Many years later, when my own daughter was in Montessori school in Washington, DC, I asked her how many Black kids she had in her class. She thought a minute, then said, “two Black kids, four brown kids, and three tan kids.” The perfect answer. She grew up to become an Art Teacher in a public high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
First in the Hearts of His Classmates
The McKinneys were the first-ever black children to attend the Knotty Oak school, and the first ever black family in our town. Stephen’s sister and my little sister shared the same 3rd grade classroom. I remember Stephen, a 6th grader (I think), as tall for his age. Kept to himself. Always reading on one of the benches at recess. But his achievements came to us over the principal’s intercom as we learned he received a special recognition for his science fair project or first prize in an essay contest chosen by the Governor himself. We all warmed to him and his quiet demeanor because he was a helping hand with his sister’s (and my sister’s) reading class.
At some point in the beginning of this learning curve, I mentioned this new family to my mother who always seemed to know what was going on in town. “Dr. McKinney and his family settled in over the summer near Lake Tiogue on Route 3,” she said. “Your Grandpa Hudson knows him. He’s an osteopath.”
Then One Day . . .
Then one day, as Stephen walked along Routh 3 on his way home, a drunk driver swerved his truck and hit Stephen head on. He died soon after. The Knotty Oak school held an assembly, and we all stood outside as the principal helped plant a tree in front of the school, with a shiny brass plaque “in memory of Stephen McKinney.” That tree grew there for many years until the entire school and the grounds were demolished.
Although improbable, in my imagination, Stephen and I shared an English class with weird Mr. Richards, a big man with a dime-sized birth mark on his left temple, who carried his lunch to school in a tiny paper bag he held close to his chest as he walked up the three flights of wide steel stairs to the top floor where the 7th and 8th grades had all their classes. Mr. Richards read to us as we rested our heads on our desks. He read about medical experiments in the 15th Century when doctors would pump bellows full of air into a patients rectum to remove the “bad humours” or operate without anesthesia to grim outcomes worthy of a tale from Edgar Alan Poe.
From 1960 to Now
I wish I could say the world has changed since Stephen McKinney died at the age of 12 in 1961. I have searched for newspaper archives that tell more of the story. So far, I haven’t found anything about Stephen or the fate of his killer.
We all know terrible things continue to happen. Whether we want to divide up the atrocities by the color wheel is up to you. On this anniversary of the birth our Nation, we remember Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s the promise of our Constitution for every citizen or citizen in waiting . . . Let’s keep that promise to each other and remember Stephen McKinney, a young man walking along a road on the way somewhere special or nowhere in particular. It was his right to do that . . . and it is yours.
Seems the blog is good for marking the passage of time: June 2, 2019, means 21 years have gone by since my mother passed away before sunrise. My brother called at 6:30 am to say, “Ma died this morning.” I can still feel the air rushing out of my lungs . . . leaving me speechless, holding the receiver, but I can’t remember what I said or how I managed to get a flight to Rhode Island that day . . . Mom’s body was already at Ianotti’s funeral home in a small wood-paneled room near the side door. My dad and my sister Debi were with me as we went in to find her covered in a baby-blue blanket. My forehead touching her forehead, I sobbed in the way a person does when someone who loved you more than anyone else in the world, someone who called you religiously every weekend, someone who could never be replaced, is suddenly, inexplicably, gone.
At some point, the three of us went back to the house. I don’t really remember that drive up Washington Street.
The next morning, the funeral director, Tommy, would drive her down to Swan Pointe to be first in the queue for cremation. A long-stemmed red rose lay on top of her cardboard coffin. Judy Garland’s version of “I Wish You Love” was one of my mother’s favorite songs along with her own rendition of “Don’t Mess With Bill,” played for us on her grandmother’s Steinway baby grand piano in the music room.
About Being Dead
My mother set the tone for our family concerning the end of life. I remember her saying, “When you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it.” As a philosophy of earthly existence, I suppose this is as definitive as you can get, and it makes good sense, especially from a matter-of-fact New Englander. No embalming. No public viewing. No open casket. “Why would I want people looking at me when I’m dead?” I remember mom asking me this question. Did I have an answer? No.
One of the things she did tell her daughters: “Always be mysterious.” I wrote a poem with that title. At some point, I’ll post it here as I gather together photos, notes, and stories about Janice Helene. As her oldest, I did try to exude an air of mystery, but not in the ways she intended. Disappearing in the forest is more my way, or maybe “enchantingly incomprehensible” is the descriptive phrase I’m looking for . . .
Today’s all memories. Dad passed away more than decade ago early in the morning while I was still asleep a few miles away at the Anchor Motel at Scarborough beach.
The night before, at his home in Coventry, I sat beside him and we watched a great ball game on tv–the Red Sox trounced the Baltimore Orioles. At that point, he had been in hospice care for only a day. He told me the doctors said there was nothing they could do for him and sent him home. “I want to die in my own bed,” he said.
And that was that.
I forget who called me, but I drove back to the house in time to be with his body for a little while as Dad lay there under the covers, and we waited for Ianotti’s Funeral Home to come over. Two fellows drove up in a station wagon with a gurney and a canvas stretcher rolled up like a small flag pole. Odd details. A gray day, slate sky, raining softly. Trying to keep the raindrops off dad’s face as they carried him outside. The back of the wagon had some flowers and bulbs and garden tools, as if they might bury him deep in a garden somewhere nearby.
My sister delivered a bowl of new baseballs and magic markers to dad’s wake. Family and friends wrote personal notes to Dad on the baseballs so when the day of the funeral came all these baseballs rolled around in the bottom of dad’s casket, a light blue casket with embossed seagulls all around. The most special baseball, with a note from his grandson Derrick, was placed under dad’s hands. As our family greeted those who came to pay their last respects, we heard stories of 1957, the year Dad coached the Coventry High School baseball team to a Division Championship. We heard how they loved Ted Williams Baseball Camp when dad was coaching there, and how he and Ted Williams were friends. We heard how, along with our mother, he taught so many local children to swim at Lake Tiogue.
Next door to dad’s wake that evening, a solemn service with a full honor guard was under way for the first young woman from Rhode Island to die in Iraq. Like dad, she too would be buried at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Exeter within the week.
Remembering the Coach
Some of his friends called my Dad “Teddy Mac.” In the photo above, he’s on the ballfield after practice near our house. He coached the Coventry High School baseball team to a Division championship in 1957. Very big deal back then. I think there was a parade for the team! More importantly, Ted Ciesla coached the team fairly, he made sure to give kids a chance to play. No matter their skills at the plate or in the field, if kids showed up after school to practice, then later on they donned their CHS red and white uniforms for real games. They rode the bus to away games as far away as Westerly. I got to be the bat girl for the team’s home games. A third grader, I sat with the team on the long bench behind first base. Every time a player up to bat made a hit, I ran for the dropped bat and returned it to its place.
Hall of Fame?
Recently, I heard from my sister that there’s something in the works to honor Dad in the local Hall of Fame. He deserves the recognition because first and foremost he gave kids a chance to play ball even if their skills were not that great. With my Dad as team coach, every kid had a chance . . .
On the ferry to Block Island in 2008, I asked a young man to take my photo. A sunny day. And of course a bit of wind as the “ship” chugged along passing the North Light, then the rocky beach near Old Harbor. I was on my way to a weekend of poetry, readings, and other excitements at Lisa Starr’s “Block Island Poetry Project”, based at Hygeia House over on the west(ish) side of the little island near Smuggler’s Cove.
The highlight of the weekend ended up being me on the porch after dinner with Mary Oliver. She had stepped outside for a few minutes of peace, and I was breaking the spell by saying something I thought seemed relevant: Her dog knew my best friend’s dog from mornings on the beach near her home in Provincetown! After my pronouncement (what else can I call it, really), Mary turned her head my way, smiled, and asked the most obvious question, “What’s the dog’s name?”
“Betsy.” I said.
Without a pause, Mary replied, “Oh sure. I know Betsy.”
Of course she did. Back then she walked the beach every morning with her dog. I think it was Percy then, but I’d have to check with my friend, Cynthia, because I was in Provincetown for only a week, getting up early for poetry workshops every day at the Fine Arts Work Center, I was not at the beach that early, nor did I want to disturb Mary on her walk. Anyway, here’s a photo of darling Betsy!
The next afternoon, Mary gave a reading “in town” at St. Matthew’s church. Lisa Starr introduced Mary to the “congregation” of poetry lovers and poets, including Coleman Barks, Valzhyna Mort, Richard Tillinghast, and others. Mary made sure before she began that Lisa’s blond lab, Brother, was allowed in for the event. I wish I had thought to bring my dog Scoutie, but honestly the idea never occurred to me. Poetry weekend 400 miles from home? Bring my dog? Duh.
Our last day there, soon after breakfast, Mary offered to sign books. Red Bird, her newest book that year, was available and I was there in time for her to sign a copy for me. More than any other photo, this one is now closest to my heart. In a heart place like Block Island, you can have a special moment with a writer. You can lean in, listen to what she is saying to you, and feel grateful to be there with your hand on the back of her chair.
As I watched her pen move across the page of my book, I had no idea how much this moment would mean to me some day. I’m amazed it’s only eleven years ago.
Before it starts raining, I’m heading over to the Civic Center Building in Silver Spring to cast my vote in this mid-term election. Early voting is underway at 11 sites around Montgomery County from 10 am to 8 pm every day until November 1, All Souls Day!
Okay, if you think about it, voting is a purely human endeavor. We are the only species that takes it upon ourselves to change our governing bodies on a regular basis, right?
In the animal kindom (we stopped saying “kingdom” a while ago), there’s a built-in hierarchy based on age and/or ability and whether you are born into a matriarchy or a patriarchy. In other words, for example, pandas can only “vote” for pandas.
I’m happy about being human and going to the polls. Does it matter who we vote for? Well, in a democracy, we are left to our own ideas about who will serve our Nation best. We all have a different set of criteria to decide what “best” means. Because I grew up in New England, I’m an old-fashioned kind of voter, a patriot I guess I’d call myself if you asked me. Most important to me is a good education for every child in America. And of course a high functioning agricultural system delivering wholesome food to every town in the country. But what about housing? People need affordable housing too, right? And which of our local candidates knows the best way to offer a solid roof, strong door, and a few windows to every family around here? Hmmm. now things are getting a little emotional and complicated. Simplicity is the key. Maybe. Is living in the woods every night considered freedom?
Long story short, I need to talk to a few of our local candidates a little more. I’m sure they have some ideas. The one thing I do know for sure is this: I wouldn’t do very well in a mountain terrain looking for bamboo for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Wish me luck at the polls!!!
April is Poetry Month. Some of us walk around reciting our favorite poems out loud, sign up for an open mic, or (drumroll please) apply pen to paper and write an original poem or two to celebrate the moment we are standing in.
There’s a lot in a moment: a breath, a tummy growling, a smile from someone at the bus stop, remembering it’s trash day . . .
As a favorite spirit often reminds me, “the school of planet earth is the most difficult one in the entire universe, but we come here to learn something, to share with others, and most importantly, to love.”
The last time I had a session with the beautiful spirit of Dr. James Martin Peebles through the channel, Summer Bacon (her website is summerbacon.com), I felt sad. But Dr. Peebles is the best reminder that “you life is what you make of it.” In other words, what’s to be sad about?
What I felt sad about was that I had drifted away from my poetry writing . . . for 2 years now, I’ve been thinking about poetry, helping with the Third Thursday Poetry Series, and listening to poets read or recite their poems . . . but where were mine? In big stack above my desk, that’s where!
So now I’m making a promise to myself to write a line, or a stanza, or a whole poem, every day. Actually, when I sat down to write this blog, I had no idea this would be the topic!
Poetry gives me a chance to feel grateful for this life, to feel the spirit rise within like the tiny wild violets popping up in the yard full of the desire to be in the world, being a part of everything — the dog steps on their petals, the wind ruffles their delicate leaves, the rain brings sweet water to their roots.
Anyway, every moment is perfect in its pulsing center. Fearless, the seconds tick by. Life is short. Everybody knows that in theory. But it’s true. We are here for a basket of moments, akin to flower petals and moonlight . . . How many sunrises left? Enough and all we need until another National Poetry Month comes around and we have our own book of poems to share with the folks who love us and cherish our time together.
See you at the Third Thursday Poetry nite at the Takoma Park Community Center! And bring a poem to share at the reception!
On March 5, 1928, my Grandmere gave birth to her first child. She named her Janice Helene. As the story goes, my Grandmere’s favorite novel at the time, Janice Meredith, inspired the baby’s name.
To continue the literary inspiration into the next generation, my mother named me Meredith. I have a sneaking suspicion that my mother never read Janice Meredith. It’s a novel about the Revolutionary War, George Washington (we lived on Washington Street), and lots of shooting back and forth between us and the Red Coats. Rockets red glare, snowy battlefields, and bloody uniforms. Not really my mother’s reading interests.
My mother loved sunbathing and icy Lime Rickeys on our chaise lounge as she read her Book-of-the-Month Club selections, novels by Graham Greene, Katherine Anne Porter, or Mary Renault.
She loved to play “Don’t Mess with Bill” and “Finlandia” on her granny Nellie’s piano, a 1905 Steinway, set in the northwest corner of our music room. As a child, my mother had a big collection of porcelain-faced dolls. I have a picture of her when she was about six or seven with her dolls all around her.
So Happy Birthday, mom. My daughter reminds me you would not have enjoyed turning 90; you left this planet for the heavenly realms shortly after your 70th birthday.
Twenty years later, we’re all still sad about that. But in a poetry workshop a few years back I wrote a poem about your favorite way to be in the world (for all of us still here):
“Always be mysterious,” you instructed. I think I have tried to be mysterious . . . as well as I can do within my limitations of not being you. The world misses you, mom. But this evening we will all raise a glass of champagne in your honor. Love love love . . . m
I guess I’m glad the novel’s title was only two words long; otherwise, my own children’s names may have been characters in the novel too. Or I might have stayed with the literary theme and named my son Huck Finn. My daughter? Well, that’s a mystery.