Archive for February, 2011

The Help
February 24, 2011

(my first day of kindergarten, 1960, New Orleans, LA)


Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, we are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.  – Kathryn Stockett 

For my birthday, my sister gave me “The Help”, an eye opening novel by Kathryn Stockett, who weaves a fictional tale of 1960’s attitudes by the privileged white society of Jackson, MS towards their black “maids” who had lovingly raised them up as children. In the book, these children then grow up and continue the same dismissive and disrespectful attitudes towards “the help” that their mothers had. 

The maids’ voices are perfectly captured in the book, and their personal lives outside their work are well documented. They are proud, upstanding people who did what must be done to maintain a living in those days. 

The society women? You just want to smack them! But then our heroine gets to work to expose the system, and does so in a most satisfactory manner. 

It is an unsettling book to read for those who hold no pretentions of racial inequality, and yet, for one who spent her childhood years in New Orleans, and had black ladies helping raise us up, I can remember those days. 

One of the painful chapters in the book alludes to the “maid’s bathroom” that one of the society women insisted be installed in her garage “to increase the property value” of their house. But it really was because she didn’t want to have to disinfect the guest bathroom all the time.

Well, I remember there being a stall in the laundry room for Helen. It was Helen’s bathroom. Once, for some reason, we had to use it (backed up plumbing elsewhere?), and I have a distinct memory of thinking, “gee, I’m using Helen’s bathroom!” all the while looking around and thinking that it was somehow different, maybe even daring!

Later, when my parents expanded the house to add more rooms to accommodate 6 kids, that plumbing was incorporated into the “boys’ wing”. No more segregated bathrooms. 

One interesting fact that I wasn’t aware of at the time was the integration of the New Orleans public schools in the fall of 1960. I had just started kindergarten that same year when Ruby Bridges became the first black student to desegregate the schools there.

According to the PBS series, American Experience/New Orleans, “Federal district judge J. Skelly Wright ordered desegregation to begin on November 14. On that day three black girls began first grade at the McDonough school and [Ruby] Bridges at William Frantz. With integration came protest and upheaval. A local citizens’ council called on white parents to boycott the schools…

When Bridges, who was guarded by marshals, arrived, she encountered mobs of white parents, who shouted racial epithets and threats. Integration supporters, including NAACP leaders and white activists, faced death threats. Bridges’ father was fired from his job, and the white owners of a grocery store refused to allow her family to shop. By the end of the week, only three white families remained in the Frantz school; all white parents had removed their children from McDonough.”

I did not attend either of those schools, but many families in the school that we went to pulled their children out as a precaution. I, of course, had no idea of the maelstrom that was swirling through the state, and it was only much later when I read my mother’s letters from those days that I realized that my parents did not cave in, but rather kept us enrolled in our public school. My father even signed a petition to keep the schools open; there had been a real possibility that the Legislature would close down the schools rather than integrate them. 

Reading the letters about those days, I am proud of my parents for standing up to the peer pressure to yank their kids out of public schools. Their doing the right thing gave me an example to follow as I grew up, and I never once felt any sense of prejudice when I shared classes with other black students through the years. As a matter of fact, one of my teachers in middle school was a black woman. After my mom went to the Parents’ Open House, she mentioned in a letter that my art teacher was a black woman, but that I had never said a word about it. It just didn’t occur to me to do so. 

All this being said, I know there are still those out there who harbor vestiges of racism to this day, and it continually amazes me that this is the case. My hope is that as generations of people are raised up to do the right thing, a new day will finally dawn. 

One can only hope.


The New Toy
February 17, 2011

Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.  – Oscar Wilde (1895) 

A few weeks ago, Joel wanted to play a particular song in Sunday School to illustrate the point of his lesson, so I brought the CD and Shannon’s old boombox to church. All of a sudden I realized how hopelessly out of date we were. 

I’m sure people were looking at me and thinking, “What in the heck is THAT thing?” It became clear that we needed to embrace 21st century technology and get an iPod! And so it came to be on my birthday, when Joel and Shannon presented me with one, along with speakers to set upon my desk. 

At first, I felt like Mr. and Mrs. Hoggett in the movie “Babe” when their son and his family give them a fax machine for Christmas. Huh? “But what do you DO with it?” 

As for me, I understood what I was supposed to do with the iPod, but I just didn’t know how to make it happen. Shannon to the rescue!  She sat me down and showed me to how to download my favorite CD’s, and set up an iTunes account for me to download music from the iTunes store. 

Techno-dunce that I am, I had to carefully write down all the steps to be sure I was doing them correctly. I’m utterly hopeless sometimes, but at least I can do it by myself now! Well, almost. Shannon had to remind me how to “sync” it to my account just the other day. 

I feel like a kid in a candy store. The Tallis Scholars, Mills Brothers, Enya, Anonymous 4, Eva Cassidy, Duruflé, Ken Medema, Saint-Saëns, Rosemary Clooney, Howard Goodall, and many more are on my eclectic play list; I love to shuffle them for a variety of sounds. I never get tired of it, and can’t wait to add more songs! 

The iPod was launched on October 23, 2001, so I am “only” ten years behind the times. But I am making rapid strides with 399 downloads so far, and many more yet to come! Now I can listen to all the music I like without anyone rolling their eyes at me. 

Never say never, but it is unlikely that I will listen to my music with ear buds as I walk Bailey or do other outside activities. I’d rather listen to Mother Nature, or rather TRY to listen to her as best I can over the sounds of the city. 

I never cease to marvel at this tiny gadget, no bigger than a playing card. Having no clue about how these things actually work, I can only imagine what I will be listening to my music on ten years from now. Predictions, anyone? 

I will predict one thing: Ten years from now, I will once again be hopelessly old-fashioned! Count on it.

An Unsentimental Journey
February 10, 2011

Junk is something you throw away three weeks before you need it.           – source unknown 

In preparation for an onslaught of house guests this summer, Shannon and I have been clearing out the upstairs bedrooms to make room for furniture instead of the piles of leftover stuff from her school days. 

Being an only child, Shannon had amassed enough stuff to practically fill the three bedrooms upstairs. Going through it was like an archeological dig! Peeling away the years, there were her baby books, photos from pre-school days, workbooks from elementary school years, old purses and “jewelry” from middle school dances, high school notebooks filled with calculus formulas and English papers, photo negatives, hilarious notes from friends and camp paraphernalia. 

I guess I had kept all that stuff with two thoughts in mind. One was that maybe someday if she becomes famous, all that stuff will be a treasure trove for historians!! The other is that it was not my place to throw it away, but rather hers.   

Oh, sure, we kept the classic things, baby books and so forth, but she gave most of the other things a cursory glance and then tossed them, saying, “What am I ever going to do with these things and where would I put them?” Every once in awhile, though, she would sit down and flip through something from years ago. We laughed at the primitive technology used back in the early 1990’s and how much of her school work was handwritten and/or drawn by hand. 

Shannon’s school did not actively promote good penmanship, and her efforts were pretty unreadable in her early school years. Sometimes the teacher would have to interpret her work for us, and much of it is pretty comical! 

For instance, in kindergarten, the children were asked to write something relevant to their lives on a piece of paper and then illustrate it. On March 13, 1992 (she was six), Shannon wrote, “MI CAT POOPOOD IN THE PEANO ROOM”, and drew a picture of a smiling black cat, complete with some brown balls beneath its tail (see above drawing).

There is a poem I wrote about our first Brownie Scout campout (a sleepless weekend for me). The poet laureate has nothing to fear, what with my rhyming “throw up” with “sup” among other amusing verses. Why did I write it, and why did I save it? I’ll have to post it someday when there is a slow news week. 

Little girl purses contained things like band aids, costume jewelry and barrettes. There were gifts that she had received over the years that she will never use; all went into the “donate” box. Old art projects were admired and tossed. 

And the books! Books and books and books. We filled several boxes with “keepers”, but filled more with others that will go to Half Price Books. 

Six large trash bags later, we surveyed our progress with satisfaction. Pretty soon we will be able to re-arrange the furniture in there to make a functioning bedroom! 

One down, two to go.

The Deep Freeze
February 4, 2011

O, wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

~Percy Bysshe Shelley  (1792-1822)

A week ago Friday I went and bought new running shoes, shorts and a tank top with birthday money from my mother in law. I wear Mizuno shoes, and every time I go buy new ones, they have a different color accent. 

Last time they were aqua. So I had to buy some shorts that “matched”. This time, they are purple. Of course, I did likewise, even though the shorts are really more of an eggplant-y color (with a lime green trim!). 

It was really balmy last weekend; spring was in the air. The Houston Marathon took place on Sunday morning, with 60 degree temps and a steady mist/drizzle. Not the best conditions for a marathon, but better than some! 

On Monday, I wore my new shoes and shorts on my run; it felt good to run in the warmth and get some sun on my winter legs. New shoes always put a spring in my step. 

I distinctly recall running along Blalock Road and observing the trees swelling with new buds and hearing the birds just a-singing with abandon. It felt good, and put me in the mood for spring. I’m not much of a winter person; as far as I’m concerned, the only good thing about cold weather is sitting in front of a fire. 

So it was with shock that I read the forecast for a major winter storm to hit Houston beginning on Tuesday and culminating with ice/snow on Friday. How could this be? 

I thought I’d better put the Palm Sunday palms in the garage, just to be sure; it seemed silly to do this while the temperature was still mild, but in hindsight, I’m glad I did.  Because the next day, the front hit with a vengeance. 

It came through in the early morning hours before dawn; I watched it through the two story window in our living room, which faces north. The wind was howling, the trees were whirling, the rain was torrential and the lightning illuminated it all, casting eerie shadows on the wall. Unbeknownst to me, the flue in the chimney was open, and the moaning sounds from it were spine tingling. Bailey? He was a noodle, as is his nature. 

The temperature dropped 30 degrees in 15 minutes. Seriously. And then the sun came up with a crystal clear, COLD, blustery day that only got colder as it wore on. 

I did cover the tender bedding plants to prepare for the hard freeze predicted for the next few nights. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have bothered. A sheet isn’t going to protect anything from temperatures as low as they went. And the wind kept blowing the covers off, in spite of all my efforts. 

It was 20 degrees on Wednesday morning, 28 degrees on Thursday morning. It didn’t rise any higher than 35 on either day. The dog bowl was frozen solid. 

I know that conditions in the north are apocalyptic now, so I am totally not complaining, but here in Houston, we seldom see snow. It is now Thursday night, and the forecast is for 1-2 inches of snow/sleet overnight and into the morning. 

So of course, the city of Houston has shut down. We don’t have snowplows. All we have are trucks that scatter de-icing chemicals. We also have over 500 square miles; it is quite impossible to cover all the overpasses, etc. So we just shut down. It happens so infrequently that it’s almost like a holiday! 

Facebook friends are all a-twitter (so to speak) about the prospect of a “snow day”, and I say hooray for the excitement in the air. Both Shannon and Joel are off on Friday, and we are all looking forward to a bonus day! 

But alas for my poor garden. Once it is all over, and the danger of another freeze is past, we’ll cut back the dead growth and see what comes back. That resurrection is truly one of the joys of spring, and honestly? I think it does a garden good when winter actually happens in Houston. 

In the meantime, I haven’t worn my new shorts again. This week I rather look like the Michelin Tire guy with layers of clothing as I run with Bailey, who just loves this cold snap! I even have ear muffs (bought in Maine when Shannon was interviewing up at Bates College). 

We’ll see what tomorrow brings… In a way I’m hoping for a winter wonderland, Houston style, which is just enough winter weather for me, and then the next day it will be 60 degrees. That’s what I like about the South!