Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Saturday, March 18, 2017

There are so many significant and interesting themes throughout this book, I hardly know where to begin.  This story encompasses  Los Alamos from the 40’s to the 70’s Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, Women’s Lib, Vietnam, and perhaps one of the most surprising and delightful aspects—orthonology. 

Yet, the narrator tells us, as early as page two, that this is not Oppenheimer’s story nor  the story of the creation of the bomb; it is not her physicist husband’s story. This, she says, is my story, the story of a woman who accompanied the bomb’s birth and tried to fly in its aftermath.

Meredith Wallace is seventeen years old in the fall of 1941 when she begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago.  As a student she becomes captivated by an older and brilliant professor, Alden Whetstone.  When he goes to Los Alamos to work on a secret wartime project, she follows.  She has every intention to return to her own graduate studies but when she becomes adrift in a traditional marriage with severe limitations, she loses her own sense of passion and purpose.

She eventually channels her scientific ambition into the study of a family of crows, birds whose free life and companionship are the very things beyond her reach.  But when she meets a young geologist, a Vietnam vet, she is awakened to changes she never thought possible.

One reviewer says, “A beautiful and sad book that explores the kinds of difficult choices women make for their families.” In the tradition of THE PARIS WIFE and LOVING FRANK, Church’s absorbing novel shows the loneliness and pain that exists for the woman behind the famous man.

Perhaps one of the reasons the writing rings so true is that the author, Ms. Church, grew up in Los Alamos in the 50’s, to a scientist father and a biologist mother. Although Meredith’s story is not the author’s story, nor her mother’s, the question that prompted her to tell this story was ,”What could these intelligent women have been and done had they been given the opportunity? I wanted to highlight the sacrifices these women made in the 50’s and how they came to redefine themselves during the tumultuous 60’s and 70’s.”  The notes from the author at the end of the book are as interesting as the novel itself. 

It is also obvious that the author loves the Los Alamos terrain she grew up in.  Perched atop the spread fingers of several mesas in the mountains of New Mexico, “nature permeates the town with plentiful hiking trails through aspen and ponderosa forests. Anasazi ruins sit atop sheer flesh-colored canyon walls dotted with ancient hand and footholds dug into the tufa rock. Mountain lions, bears, and smaller animals populate the canyons and crows abound.”

I must admit I never knew crows could be so interesting.   One example, crows can recognize individual faces and pass that knowledge on to their young!  It is an interesting parallel that as Meredith’s crow journals, where she keeps meticulous notes of their behaviors, change so does she.   And a little bonus: each chapter has a few facts about different species of birds—owls, sparrows, jays, and many more. Not only their characteristics but the interesting names for their groupings, such as “ a party of jays, tidings of magpies, exaltation of larks.”  Perhaps good to know should you be a Jeopardy contestant someday.

Church, a lawyer by profession, turned writer late in life (this is her debut novel, at age sixty) has created a story about the moral choices we make and their cost and consequences.  It is also a slice of life of a pivotal time in our country’s history at  a unique site in America.

I highly recommend it, perhaps best read on a porch swing or hammock while watching a“charm of hummingbirds”.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Star for Mrs. Blake  by April Smith

A Star for Mrs. Blake is the fictional account of five mothers who lost their sons in World War I.   It is, however, based on historical events and two actual people in history.

Although the Americans fought for little more than a year in World War I, there were 116,516 soldiers killed and more than 30,000 Americans were buried in the U.S.  cemeteries in Europe.  In 1929, Congress passed legislation to fund travel for widows and mothers of fallen soldiers to visit their loved ones’ graves in France.
During a three-year period, 6,693 women made the trip.

Cora Blake, in this work of fiction, was one of those women.  The opening lines caught my attention immediately.  “Cora Blake was certainly not planning on going to Paris that spring. Or ever in her lifetime. She was the librarian in a small town on the tip of an island off the coast of Maine.”

“The moment Cora read the letter inviting her to make the pilgrimage, she felt deep kinship with thousands of women she’d never met.  They were from different parts of the country and all walks of life, but what they all had in common was this:  They had all gone to the window and taken down the banner that showed a blue star, symbolizing hope and pride for their son’s service and accepted the lonely task of replacing the blue star with one of gold. Gold meant sacrifice to the cause of liberty and freedom.”

Cora was designated to be the leader of her group of American mothers, in “Party A”, consisting of Katie, an Irish maid, Minnie, the wife of an immigrant Jewish chicken farmer, Bobbie, a wealthy socialite, and Wilhelmina, a former tennis star whose mental health is precarious, and Mrs. Selma Russell, the only black lady among three busloads of pilgrims, as the Gold Star mothers were called on their journey overseas.

In spite of the somber task they were undertaking, the author injects a lot of humor as they begin their adventure. They are treated royally both in Boston and New York City before their departure.  There is, however, much confusion as one of the mothers in Party A gets lost in New York and there is a mix-up of the two Mrs. Russells.   ( one from Party B). They are rushed from one dizzying site to another—the Empire State Building, Broadway, Central Park Zoo, Fifth Avenue, Grant’s Tomb, accompanied by their liaison Lieutenant Hammond, a handsome twenty-three year- old recent West Point graduate and Nurse Lily.   As they are crossing the ocean in their first-class accommodations, we get a good glimpse into each of their personalities and how they interact, which lays the groundwork for future events. They finally debark in Paris where they are treated as celebrities.

We now meet two American journalists in the story, Clancy Hayes and Griffin Reed, who will play significant roles in Cora’s life and hence the story.  They also serve to illuminate issues of ethics, propaganda and the role of the press in determining how war is presented. 

Griffin, having a severe face disfigurement, wears a mask, created by Florence Dean Powell, a character based on the real-life Anna Coleman Ladd.  Ladd was a socialite and sculptor living in Boston in 1917 when she read about the work of another sculptor who ran what was called the “Tin Noses Shop”.  This was a mask-making studio for disfigured British soldiers.  Inspired, Ladd set up her own studio in Paris and set to work sculpting new faces for those who had lost a piece of their own in trench warfare.  Her studio also created a safe haven for the men who couldn’t be seen on the street in their hideous condition. 

As you can see, there is much historical data intertwined in this story which goes on to tell of the mothers finally achieving their goal of seeing their son’s graves.  There is a lot of drama associated with this event and a few surprises along the way. 

This story is also very much about friendships and relationships—among the mothers, between liaison Hammond and nurse Lily, between Cora and journalist Reed and for Cora and one other mother, the men they are involved with in America who want to marry them.

In the author’s postscript, April Smith says the story was inspired by the diary of the real Colonel Thomas Hammond, also a West Point grad, who accompanied actual mothers to Paris, as does the Hammond character in the book.  She is grateful to the Hammond family for access to the story of the father and grandfather who are now both buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Author Smith makes it a point to travel to every location she writes about in her books.  She takes pictures and talks to people and just wanders.  Back home, she outlines her story on a white board and begins writing. The process can take from two to twenty-five years, as was the case in a Star For Mrs. Blake.  Her vivid and detailed descriptions are proof of her first-hand knowledge.

This is an excellent book for a book discussion group. Many facets to discuss, but aside from that I agree with author Nelson DeMille, (Word of Honor) who says, “Everyone who has served or is serving in the military and their friends and families should read this book.”  I would add to that…every American… to gain a greater appreciation of our history and the sacrifices made for the precious freedoms we enjoy today.

Monday, January 2, 2017

 Take Center Stage

I am a charter member of the Clean Your Plate, Children in Europe are Starving Club.

As a first generation American, I heard that phrase constantly from my mother who emigrated from Bulgaria. I was led to believe that if I ate all my food, my distant cousins might somehow miraculously benefit.  I needed little encouragement with the delicious cuisine served in my mother’s kitchen.   Looking back to those days in the fifties, our daily fare was what restaurants now claim to be gourmet selections: succulent Bulgarian entrees such as roasted lamb, stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers, Phyllo pastry filled with cheeses baklava dripping with honey and walnuts.  My taste buds were awakened and refined at an early age.

In grade school my brown paper sack lunch was easy to find when they opened the lunch cupboard doors. It was the one with a large grease stain on it with leftovers from last night’s dinner.  No American peanut butter and jelly sandwich for me.  More like a juicy kielbasa. 

In addition to developing a sophisticated taste palate, I also inherited Bulgarian genes, which meant I was short with a tendency to be a little stocky. (Sumo wrestler came to mind as I looked in the mirror.) As a teen, I often carried ten to twelve pounds more than I should have. Spread over a mere five feet, there was not a lot of longitude to disperse the extra poundage.  My thighs and hips attracted the extra calories and were a constant source of frustration to me as I saw a pear shape reflection in the mirror.

I probably first became conscious of my weight and the direct correlation it had to my self-esteem at age fourteen, my freshmen year of high school.  I don’t think anyone would have suspected that there was a lot of negative self-talk going on in my head, as I participated fully in every activity, had many friends and even made the cheerleading squad.  Only I knew how much more enjoyable those activities were when my weight was less.    Shopping for a prom dress was much more fun when the zipper went up smoothly rather than sucking in my breath and thinking I should probably not eat the day before to insure I could zip it again.

I soon discovered I had a summer weight and a winter weight. As spring arrived in  our Midwestern climate, I could shed five to ten pounds easily by browsing through the Sears catalog and visualizing those cute pedal pushers in a bright madras print on myself.  Living near Lake Michigan and going to the beach often, the thought of my thunder thighs in a bathing suit helped me say “no” to French fries, or an extra helping of a delicious moussaka. 

However, as the autumn days grew short and dark, I inevitably gained back the ten pounds. Luckily bulky sweaters and long poodle skirts of the fifties were a chubby girl’s  friend.  But clearly the cycle of yo-yo dieting was firmly established.

After pregnancies, I had more than the ten pounds to lose. My mother spoke words of comfort, “Don’t you worry. That’s just baby fat.” I reminded her my last baby was six years old. 

But America was now offering ladies countless opportunities to achieve the perfect body. I was probably one of the first members of Weight Watchers in the sixties, inspired by Jean Nidetch’s story on the Johnny Carson show.  I became a faithful weight watcher and lost thirty pounds.  My self-image was soaring.  But keeping it off was another issue. Through the years I tried every weight loss program:  Nutri -System, Jenny Craig, Diet Center, Atkins, Scarsdale.  I was successful with each one.   But it was off–again, on-again and as the scale went up, my self-esteem inevitably went down.

Then a few years ago, a revelation—an “aha” moment occurred.

We were attending a Celebration of Life for a deceased family member and many of our old home movies from the sixties were running continuously. I saw my son’s first birthday party (1965)and smiled again at the sight of a tow-headed little boy putting his entire hand in the icing.  Then when I came into view on the screen, I experienced the other feelings I was having that day. In spite of trying to emulate fashion icon Jackie Kennedy with my knock-off two-piece Cassini suit, I recalled how heavy and unattractive I felt. I was shocked at how just seeing that suit some fifty years later, all the feelings of insecurity I felt at the time cursed through me again. But to my surprise, on the now grainy screen, I did not see the fat woman I thought I was. I saw a somewhat attractive young mother.  Granted, probably fifteen pounds more than she weighed in high school, but by no means fat.

And in that “aha” moment, I grieved for all the occasions where I wasted negative energy because of ten pounds.  A mere ten pounds often kept me from fully enjoying an experience because I thought I should have been thinner.

Today, at age 75, I am still weight conscious but more for health reasons than appearance. I am now the one preparing the delicious Bulgarian cuisine which I still love to eat and share with friends and family.  I am twenty-five pounds more than my high school weight but active with tennis, pickle ball and golf.  I often think of that home movie and vow to not let any negative self-judgment creep in as I participate fully in these activities. 

The lesson I learned from that movie was that no one is judging me more harshly than I do.  In fact, they are probably not even noticing my weight.  Wasn’t it Dr. Phil who said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what people think of you if you knew how little they do think of you. Most people are thinking of themselves.”

I’m starting a new club.  Not a “clean your plate” club, but a “clean your mind of negative self-image” club.  I want to embrace myself as I am so my daughters and granddaughters will follow my example, learning to love their bodies and not be misguided by the unrealistic expectations society has cast upon women. 

When my family looks back at the movies we are making today, I want them to see a woman enjoying life to the fullest, not one hiding in the background for fear the camera might capture that extra ounce of flab my arms now carry. 

What do you want your loved ones to see in the movies and memories they will watch in years to come?   I hope it is you center stage participating in life with a beautiful smile, laughter and joie de vivre.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The news of Castro’s passing today takes me back to a day in 1971 when I hesitantly accepted my first teaching position at an inner city school 30 miles east of Chicago.

It was a cold January day in the Midwest, mid- school year, when I walked into a classroom of 13 hostile Cuban boys and girls, ages 8 to 14. Their families had recently fled their native Cuba through Miami and ended up in the steel town of Gary, Indiana. which had a fairly large Cuban population.   They did not want to be  in the city nor did they want to learn English. Today, ESL has a wide curriculum with countless lesson plans.  At that time there were none.  My second hurdle: I did not speak Spanish.

I accepted the position as a favor to the district coordinator who was looking for a teacher with a strong language background who did not speak Spanish.  I did have a degree in English with a minor in French and spoke a Slavic language-Bulgarian. I had substituted for her previously when a Russian language teacher was elected to the  Indiana State Senate and had to be gone for four months to serve in the legislature.  I guess she thought I was up to another challenge.

These newly arriving Cuban children attended Jefferson Elementary, historically the first school in Gary, a US Steel settlement in 1906.  The Spanish teacher they hired to teach them was not successful because once the Cuban children knew she spoke Spanish, they refused to speak in English.  Hence, I was to be the compromise solution. 

I did have, as my assistant, a kind and gentle Spanish-speaking aide. However, she was from Mexico and we both soon discovered that the Spanish spoken in Mexico was different from the Cuban Spanish. For example, the Mexican word for “grass”  was interpreted as “weeds” by the children. They had a fierce pride in their language and their country and defended their language.  They became so angry over the discrepancy in the above word that they would not speak to either one of us the rest of the day.

With no teaching materials yet developed, I recall many sleepless nights wondering what I would do with the children the following day, not only to teach them English but to earn their trust.  My challenges were many.

What often appealed to the eight-year old girls was considered baby stuff by the fourteen- year old boys who were quite mature beyond their years.  (These children had been encouraged by the Cuban government to inform on their parents if they were not displaying allegiance to Castro’s dictates.) I thought I had found a solution, of sorts, with a program out of Tennessee, the Peabody Language development program. Designed for pre-schoolers, it incorporated a funky little puppet named P. Mooney to teach them colors, numbers, sight words. I found that the children would often talk to the puppet when they would not talk to me.  However, the older boys soon guffawed at the “baby” stuff, yet when I put P Mooney away for a few days, they asked for him.   Donde es P Mooney?” I realized they were not above having fun after all and started to trust my instincts. 

I was not the only teacher encountering resistance as these students were put into age-appropriate classrooms for half-days.  A Cuban lawyer who lived in the Jefferson School community spoke to the teachers one night, trying to help us understand the Cuban culture. He said, unlike the children who came from the Mexico and responded positively to kindness and affection, the Cuban children had no respect for that and responded best to discipline and authority.  One parent told me to spank her child if she disobeyed.  As a new teacher, I was dismayed and disillusioned.  Perhaps I had chosen the wrong career.

Further challenges.  The older girls were falling asleep in class. I discovered they were staying up until midnight to watch the Spanish soap opera-the only thing they
could understand on TV.  They came into the classroom after having only black coffee for breakfast on little sleep. 

I often sympathized with these children. Although they had assimilated into a Cuban neighborhood, they longed for their countryside of lush green land where they played outdoors waiting for their father to return from his work in the fields and then ate their evening meal outdoors over an open fire. Quite a contrast to their present environment--miles of concrete with postage-stamp yards, frigid temperatures off of Lake Michigan and the steel mills of Gary belching out their pollution on a daily basis.

One day I ate lunch in the cafeteria and discovered that although they allowed the servers to fill their trays with a hot meal of  “American” food, they would slide it to the end of the serving line and then dump the entire contents immediately in the trash can. They then went to the candy machine and stocked up. This was disturbing as their hot lunch was paid for by food stamps.

Although I questioned if they were learning English, I was learning Spanish at a rapid rate. For example, I had not lost the pregnancy weight from my two-year
old and I found out quickly what “ Ella es Gorda” meant. I’m sure that was spoken in the most endearing way. Right. Also, when I would give my two-year old her bath in the evening, I found myself saying, “Sientete, sientete,” as she stood up in the tub.

One day, in frustration, I asked the children, through my translator, “Why don’t you want to learn English?”
“We’re going back to Cuba,” they responded joyfully as if they were on the next boat.
“Really?” I asked. “When?”
“When Castro leaves,” was their reply.

Today Castro has left and I can’t help but wonder—do they still consider Cuba their home?  Will they now return?

As for me, did I return to the classroom?  Yes, I did, many years later.  A regular high-school English classroom complete with teaching materials and no language barriers.  But none of those students have stayed in my memory as much as the little Cubans.  As they asked, Donde es P Moony? , I have often asked through the years, Donde estan los ninos?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Most of us are enjoying the 2016 Olympics and what has more drama than Women’s Gymnastics?    As we watch these talented and skilled young ladies we can only imagine the dedication and the hours they have devoted to the sport that led them to their Olympic dream.  And as we observe their parents in the bleachers as they agonize over every event their daughters participate in, we wonder how many sacrifices they have made to bring these dreams to reality.  We imagine each of their stories, behind the scenes, would be the making of a fascinating novel.

Megan Abbott, a New York Times best-selling author’s eighth novel, You Will Know Me has a timely release as she tells the story of the Knox family.  Katie and Eric have dedicated their lives to their fifteen-year old daughter, Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful.  They have made Devon the focus of their entire lives and Drew, the younger brother is often pushed into the background.  Devon is the star, the thoroughbred of the family.

Even in the womb, Devon seemed like a natural gymnast.  She kicked her mother so hard she dislocated one of her ribs.  At age three, she was physically transformed due to an accident when she ran into a lawn mower that cut off two of her toes. That’s when her parents enrolled her in gymnastics and discovered she was a genius at it—fearless, powerful and freakishly flexible.

The story is told from the mother, Katie’s, point of view. Katie, who knows her daughter’s every knot and chord, and that gives her a false sense of closeness, of know ability.  That is the book’s eerie central theme: You can’t know the people closest to you even if you spend your days focused on the minute details of their bodies, rubbing out aching muscles or adjusting leotards.  

The story also digs deeply into the issue of personal sacrifice to achieve a goal.
Devon might be able to do something very few can do but does that mean she has to give up a normal childhood and teen experience?

As if there were not enough drama on this Olympic stage setting amongst the competitors as well as their “booster” parents, a crime is committed that rocks their community.  Handsome and popular Ryan, a regular and beloved figure in the gym, is killed in a hit- and- run accident.  What was he doing, walking alone on a dangerous road late at night? Police are investigating and the “booster” moms have their own theory. 

The novel’s real draw is not solving of this mystery but Katie’s realization that her life is not what she thought it was.   Just as good gymnasts seem to make their flips look as effortless as coin flips, so do good writers like Abbott weave  many themes into a story that cause us to turn the page and most importantly, to examine our own beliefs.

As she has done in many of her other books, Abbott has the incredible knack for putting us in the head of a conflicted character who has to face up to some ugly truths.  Woven throughout the story is a family drama, a crime story and reflections on the real cost of the pursuit of excellence in any endeavor.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls is historical fiction, where the author Kelly so skillfully combines the lives of two real women with fictional characters to reveal the plight of the Ravensbruk Rabbits.  This was the name given 74 Polish women who survived WWII and the unbelievable cruelty they endured at the only major Nazi concentration camp for women, just outside Furstenbeg, Germany. If you have never heard of the Ravensbruk Rabbits, you are not alone but that is soon to change with the publication of this remarkable story that was five years in the making.  

I might add that cruel is not harsh enough a word as these women were subjects of medical experiments that were designed to maim and cripple healthy human beings.
According to the Alliance for Human Research Protection website, “Their legs were broken, pieces of bone extracted, nerves and muscles torn. To simulate battle injuries, the doctors sought to maximize infection by deliberately infecting the wounds using increasingly more potent bacteria cultures, rubbing the surgical wounds with bacteria, sawdust , rusty nails and slivers of glass.” Yes, unimaginable but true.   At this point in the story, I almost did not continue because it was so disturbingly graphic, but I continued and glad that I did as history turns this unspeakable event into a triumph of the human spirit and the goodness of one remarkable woman in history—Caroline Ferriday.

The genesis of this story, as horrendous as it is at times, begins in a beautiful setting. Ms. Kelly, the author, toured the actual Bellamy- Ferriday house and gardens in Bethlehem, Connecticut, when an article entitled Caroline’s Incredible Gardens appeared in Victoria Magazine in 1999. Ms Kelly was attracted to the home and especially the lilac gardens but it took her several years to finally visit.  She carried the article with her for many years, a bucket list of sorts.  Although she lived nearby, she was busy with a young family, but finally in 2003, she did visit the historic home sitting on 100 beautiful acres.

The home originated with Bellamy, a reverend who gained fame through his role in the Great Awakening, America’s religious revival of the mid-18th century.  One hundred and fifty years later it was purchased by Manhattan socialites Henry and Eliza Ferriday, who with their daughter Caroline created an impressive garden filled with antique roses and specimen lilacs.  

Caroline Ferriday is one of three main characters in this novel that is told from three points of view. The other main character is Kasia, a Polish teenager who starts working for the underground resistance movement as Germany begins its invasion of Poland.  As a Polish Girl scout she and many others, in their attempts to defeat Hitler, are arrested and become political prisoners. Kasia, although fictional, is based on one of the Ravensbruck rabbits (or lapins as they were called in Polish, because the unimaginable experiments caused them to hop rather than walk after the experiments).  The third main character is Herta Oberhauser, a German doctor who accepts a job at Ravensbruck.  Herta , like Caroline, is a real life character.

The three lives, Caroline, Kasia, and Herta,  come together when Caroline hears of the survivors’ plight many years after the war. She uses her social connections to bring many of the women to America where they received much-needed medical attention and were treated to a host of restorative measures.    She convinces Normal Mailer, then editor of the Saturday Evening Post to feature their story, appealing to the generosity and sympathy of the American people to help these ravaged women.

If you Google Herta Oberhauser, you can see the role she played in history as the only female doctor at Ravensbruck and the only female at the Nuremburg trials.  For her involvement in the horrendous experiments she was sentenced to twenty years in prison but was quietly released after five years and resumed her medical practice in Germany as a family physician. When Caroline Ferriday heard of this, she worked relentlessly to have Herta’s license revoked and was successful in that endeavor in 1960.

As amazing as this novel is, the author’s journey in the researching and the writing of it is also as fascinating a story.   As mentioned above, Ms. Kelly visited the historic home  and although it was the lilac garden that drew her in, she discovered so much more.  She learned of a remarkable woman in history. Caroline was a Broadway actress, a debutante, and a philanthropist, but what captured Ms. Kelly’s imagination was the black and white photograph of a group of Polish women on Caroline’s desk.  As the guide told her, “Caroline took up their cause. She dedicated her life to these women to assure that their story was not forgotten.”

Ms. Kelly began her research and writing several years later. She studied Caroline’s archives in Connecticut, Paris and Washington, D.C.  As part of her research she and her 17-year old son took a trip to Poland and Germany. They rode the train from the village of Lublin where the girls were put on a train to Farstenberg, Germany to help bring the story to life—to see it through their eyes.

She tells us on her blog that the lilac seedling is now a full-grown bush. It took her that long to write it.  And like the seedling, her story has grown into something beautiful to share with the world.

Throughout the rest of her life, Caroline maintained a relationship with the women she gave new life to. Having never married with a family of her own, she referred to them as her daughters and they called her Godmother.  Caroline is proof indeed that true-to-life fairy godmothers do exist.  A story that will in some ways break your heart and in others confirm the goodness of people and the resilience of the human spirit.