Sunday Morning ~ White Christmas

Sunday Morning ~ White Christmas

December 16, 2018

Hi Everyone,

I live in a place that is mostly white: white skin, white snow, white lights on the houses at Christmas. We knew this before we moved here; there is little racial diversity in Maine, though since 1989 it’s slowly changing. There is plenty of socio-economic diversity, but racially, it’s quite white. On this island the racial diversity comes mostly from international scientists at the research lab. We took this into consideration before we moved here. We wanted our children to understand what it is like to be a minority, so after we bought our land but before building our house we went off to live and work in Samoa for two years. We wanted the kids to attend the local school a) because it was free and b) we thought it would be a good cross cultural experience. We were firm in this belief, though it became difficult when our oldest said he was scared and didn’t want to go to school. After being reassured he wasn’t being hurt (at least physically) we forced him to work it out, somehow believing he would have more compassion for kids who were being discriminated against. Who knows if this was the right thing to do, but it is the decision we made at the time. It was hard for our kids to fit in because they were small (Samoans are large people), white, and didn’t speak the language. I didn’t feel super welcome either when nurses would talk in Samoan, say my name, then all burst out laughing. The kids all managed to find their niche and did well, but years later we overheard them telling a guest who’d also lived in Samoa how difficult it was for them in school. They were threatened, hit, and mocked. They said they never told us about it because we were so sure it was a good experience for them. They didn’t want to burst our little bubbles. I wonder what decision I’d make now, knowing all this. Give up the vacation and send them to the private school? Can’t go back and do it over.

I grew up in a little mill town in Massachusetts, also mostly white: skin, snow, and first communion dresses. I think there was even less diversity there as almost everyone I knew was Catholic. There were protestants in town, of course, and I know of maybe three Jewish families. Only one family was African American. But I don’t remember any slurs or acts of discrimination. Were they present but I didn’t see it? Our neighbor, Bernie, was Jewish. I adored him. He was funny and generous and loved kids. We walked with him, we sat on his front step while he did card tricks and told stories. He taught us songs. His Jewishness was a curiosity to me, nothing else.

After writing last week about being afraid of my grandmother, I’ve been thinking about this. What was it I was afraid of? She didn’t speak English? My mother’s mother spoke French and she was totally senile with her clothes on backwards and rotting food in the refrigerator. But I wasn’t afraid of her! She smiled sort of idiotically as my mother changed her clothes and threw out all the rotten food, but that wasn’t a bad memory. Did I pick up on my mother’s casual attitude? 

I’m thinking of this now because a friend’s daughter had a bad experience this week because of the color of her skin. I think of the boy in my class who had polio and walked with heavy metal braces. He often sat alone at lunchtime. I never thought to go sit with him or to reach out in any way. I wonder what he told his mother about his day at school. I find myself wanting to find him and apologize. I wonder how all the rejection he endured shaped his life. I looked at everyone in church today to see what their skin looked like as they went to communion. There was a little diversity, Asian, and Jamaican. I wondered if they felt as welcome there as I do. I hope so, but I really don’t know. I wonder what a child in grade school has experienced that she would tell another they can’t participate because their skin is brown. What cascade of events do our actions trigger? 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ Angels

Sunday Morning ~ Angels

December 9, 2018

Hi Everyone,

My grandmother’s house was dark and cluttered. My father was the only one in the family who moved away and we‘d visit a few times each year. The house always spooked me. I only wanted to go to my cousin Janice’s, who had a bright new house on a sunny street across town, and we’d get there eventually, but when Nana was alive, hers was usually the first stop. My siblings and I would stand outside Nana’s house and argue about who would go in first. It smelled bad inside and I wanted to hold my nose the whole time. I remember pushing my brother and saying, “You go in. I went first last time!” My Nana didn’t speak English. She always wore (what I thought was) the same black dress. She wore a little hair net that made her head look like it was on an ancient doll, still in the packaging. We were afraid of her, or at least I was. If we moved anything in her house she’d yell at us in Italian. Maybe she wasn’t yelling, but I thought she was. We’d line up and she’d give us a hug and we’d go sit in the dark living room to look at Italian magazines. There was a section that had two identical-looking drawings, and the challenge was to find the twenty-one (or was it twelve?) differences between the two. It was the only thing I liked about going there. As we kids sat there looking for things that didn’t match, we’d hear all this Italian coming from the kitchen, animated and angry sounding to my little ears. My mother (who was not Italian) must have just sat there smiling. I never heard her speak. In summer months, we’d be given empty kleenex boxes and sent out back where there were huge raspberry patches beside a grape arbor. We’d fill the boxes with raspberries to eat on the way home. Beyond that was a river, but we never ventured there. I don’t remember being warned to stay away, but I don’t remember being tempted to go near it, either. GE was upstream; it smelled bad.

I haven’t been to Pittsfield in years, but a month ago, my first cousin Johnny died after a long and very unfair battle with dementia. My aunt Gene, his mother, had the same fate. Johnny, who’s  gone by “John” for many decades, lived four houses down from my Uncle Aldo and Aunt Gene’s house where he grew up. We didn’t make it to Johnny’s funeral. He was 73 years old––– my generation, but older than me. His dad was the oldest, my dad the youngest; seventeen years between them. It set us apart a bit. I revered Johnny and his brother Tom (my godfather). Tom was handsome, debonair, and might as well have been a movie star. Johnny was more in the cute category: impish, funny, and fun. He always made me laugh, always eager to help, always fixing things.  

Gone for a month now, we went to visit his widow and living saint, Bobbie. (What do you call the wife of your first cousin? Cousin in law?) We passed Uncle Aldo’s house and I was struck by how tiny it was. The backyard was smaller than my house! As a kid, I thought that yard was enormous! There was a huge (I thought) vegetable garden. The tomatoes were state-fair quality. It was lush and giving. I remember barbecues in that yard with about thirty people! As we looked at it yesterday I thought, how did we all fit? Maybe there weren’t that many people? But I’m sure there were! We had outside tables to sit on (I’m sure), and grills with charcoal briquettes, and I remember running around with my siblings and cousin Janice, whom I worshipped. She was only two years older than me, an only child, and to me, the older sister I always wanted. She was my mentor, heroine, and friend. We’d cry when we saw each other, and cry when we parted. The adults thought it was adorable. I thought it was tragic.  

Yesterday, we drove by Nana’s old house; it’s still in the family. We pulled into the driveway and I got a tinge of the old anxiety. I looked at the backyard and thought, “It can’t be this small! And it’s on a pond, not a river! I always thought that was a river! How did a grape arbor and raspberry field fit here? It’s tiny!” The house is red now, not the greenish yellow it used to be, but I recognize the asbestos shingles. The house is still a little tilted, which, I found somewhat comforting. At least that was how I remembered it. Tilted.  

As I ponder my inaccurate recollections, I wonder what else I’ve gotten wrong? Was Nana really that scary? Janice doesn’t think so. She loved her. She liked going to that house. I wonder if, on those long-ago visits, we’d gone to Janice’s house first, like I wanted to, and I went together with her to Nana’s, would I have had a totally different experience of that place? Would I have followed her lead? Learned a little Italian? I wonder now what I missed out on. My aunt, Janice’s mom, is still alive at 107 years old. She’s sharp as a tack, can remember everyone’s birthdate, and still surprises and amuses us with her poignant statements like: “It’s such a relief to have nice relatives.” It’s inspiring to be with her and part of her. We’re with her now in Vermont and both the company and setting are luscious. We never used to visit family at Christmas time. We stuck close to home and had the holiday with friends. It’s nice now to visit and see the season without frenzy and stress. Without frantic jobs and young children, it’s more reflective and peaceful. Discussing the topic of mortality today, Janice and I reminisced about when Nana died. We were still young, and when my father got the call, I remember feeling relief that we’d not have to go there again. Janice’s experience was very different. Her’s was more appropriately filled with grief for the loss of a loving matriarch who’d survived bringing her family across the ocean to a strange land, living in poverty and hardship, and loving her offspring in a way I never understood. 

I felt badly about missing Johnny’s funeral. I believe in those rituals and wanted to be there. But I’m grateful to have had this weekend as it was, connecting with those I love and admire in a quieter way. When someone passes, I imagine them as an angel, happily pain and anguish-free. And instead of seeing them once in awhile, I feel like they’re around whenever you need them. They understand. 

Love to all,

Linda

Sunday Morning ~ A Light in the Window

Sunday Morning ~ A Light in the Window

December 2, 2018

Hi Everyone,

Living with someone who has no history of religious tradition has been enlightening. It’s forced me to consider why my routines and traditions are important to me.

I’ll start with Christmas cards. I love making my cards. I love figuring out the design and the message. I love making each one and sending a personal note. It’s my annual creative challenge. I also love getting Christmas cards. It makes going to the mailbox fun!  That’s the gift. A nice message maintaining a long term connection. I anticipate the arrival of other home made cards, seeing what my creative friends have come up with. One year I made doves out of handmade paper and wrote a message on a little scroll, tied it with a bow and tied the ribbon around the neck of the dove. I thought people would know to take off the scroll and read the message. When I went to visit my mother, I saw she had the card hanging on her little tree with the scroll still in place. She asked me why I didn’t even sign the card? I told her I did! You were supposed to take the scroll off and the message is inside. Oh! She hadn’t realized that. I thought she was getting old and feeble. Never gave it another thought. Then this week a friend sent me a photo of that card as she was about to hang it on her tree as an ornament. The scroll was still attached. I wrote back, did you know to open the message? She said, “No! I thought it was an ornament! Should I do it now?” I told her to open it, and she sent the photo of the signed message written in 2001, the last Christmas we were an intact family. It was right after 9/11 and I wanted to send a message of peace. I wonder how many others didn’t open it? I feel bad about thinking my mother didn’t get it; she obviously wasn’t the only one. Poor design. Market research fail. 

Then I read about the history of Christmas cards, something I’d never thought about. I found it’s a fairly recent tradition, cleverly promoted around the time of the first post office in 1843 in England. Trying to boost business, Sir Henry Cole enlisted an artist friend to create a card to be mass produced and sent at Christmas. So much for my not wanting to promote the commercialism. But I am in favor of supporting the post office, which I still think is the best deal ever. That you can put this little stamp on something and it gets hand delivered to someone on the other side of the world. How can you complain about that?

Then there’s the advent wreath which I made yesterday. As George watched, he asked about the tradition. I couldn’t come up with a really good, articulate, historically accurate response. I thought about how many things we do just as a matter of routine, not knowing why. We never had advent wreaths in my house growing up, but there was always one at church. In 1988 my friend Betsy made us one as an early Christmas gift. Living in our tiny rental house in Connecticut with five little kids, we didn’t have many decorations around and it sweetly brightened our home for the month of December. Since then I’ve made one every year, but still never thought about where the tradition came from. So I looked it up. I’d always wondered why the candles were purple and pink instead of red, as would be more fitting with other decorations. It turns out the original candle colors were red and white. A Lutheran minister in Germany had made a wreath out of a cart wheel when he was working with poor children in Hamburgh. To count down the days until Christmas, they lit a red candle every day on the wheel, and a white one on Sundays. When the tradition caught on in the Catholic religion they made the candles coordinate with their advent vestments: purple for sacrifice and pink for joy. Fashion trend-setters that they were, that caught on. The circle represents infinite love. The evergreen, the hope of eternal life, and the candles represent the light of God coming through Jesus. The first of the four candles represents waiting in hope that the prophet’s words were true, that a savior was coming. The second candle represents faith as it was prophesied the birth would be in Bethlehem. The third (the pink one) represents joy and is lit on Gaudete Sunday the third week of advent (“gaudete” is “rejoice” in latin I just learned). This Joy comes from the shepherds who just heard from the angels that the savior is coming for them as well as the high and mighty. (I love this. I love the idea of angels actually speaking to the shepherds.) And the fourth candle is the peace candle, symbolizing the angels announcing that Jesus was coming to bring peace. I guess they didn’t specify exactly when that would happen. That would have helped in more realistic expectations as it’s going on three thousand years of waiting for that, but I still like to think of angels speaking when I light the candles, and I still pray for peace. I love what the wreath symbolizes and with all the discouragement about how we are behaving as humans, I’m happy to retreat into the darkening days holding on to this message. 

When I was in college, my friend Ron would have a Christmas mass at his house. Dear Fr. Casey would say the mass and we’d celebrate the season with one of the Chibaro’s fabulous parties afterward. One year Ron asked me to give a history of the Christmas tree as part of the mass. I was thrilled to have a major role, never one for the stage. I somehow researched where the Christmas Tree tradition came from. I must have gone to the library and looked it up in an encyclopedia. God, that seems so archaic. I probably opined about any information I couldn’t find, but I remember Fr. Casey afterward telling me how special my little presentation was. No one on earth could make you feel as loved and honored as that man. What a gift he was. So I was familiar with the story of the tree and evergreen swags, which started as a pagan tradition to keep away witches, evil spirits, and illness. Since the pagan rituals were at the solstice it coincided with the feast of Adam and Eve on December 24th when that story got popular, and trees were then adorned with apples. Those evolved into glass baubles as civilization prospered. Queen Victoria made the Christmas tree into the icon it is now in 1846 when she had a photo taken with her family around the tree in the palace. This was not all included in my original oration as wikipedia did not exist then, but the pagan ritual was in there. I recall saying something like “for me I find God in nature, so to bring nature inside enriches the season.” or something equally mawkish. 

And then the candles in the windows, which, I adore. It looks so warm and welcoming from the outside. This is another tradition we never did when I was growing up. I had terrible candle envy, as my best friend, Beth had candles in her windows. They were just so pretty. They looked so neat and tidy, orderly and clean. Welcoming. This is an Irish tradition emanating from the days when the British were doing their utmost to exterminate them. They were forbidden to practice Catholicism, but faithful as ever, went underground and persevered. The candles were signals for the priests to come on Christmas and give a blessing, or communion, or whatever he carried around at that time. Probably just the blessing was the safest since they were being executed for practicing at all. Wow, I understand now where the steadfastness comes from. The Irish immigrants brought the tradition here to America, for which I thank them. Would that it was still a message that all are welcome in this home; you’ll be safe here.

Love to all,

Linda