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I find myself paralyzed these days as I watch the horror of the current elections with both amazement and genuine terror. When you get to my age, you hope you’ve seen everything stupid that can happen and then this…

Trying to figure it all out, I think back to the elections of my younger days when we didn’t have 24/7 news coverage, the internet or social media. We got a little news from television, more from newspapers and magazines. I’m not advocating we go back, because we can’t, but it has definitely made an impact on how we live through the news ad nauseum as it unfolds minute by minute.

To be fair, and because I tend to want to see all sides of an issue, I try to watch and read as much as I can from every viewpoint. I had a conversation with a university student who was turning 21 and voting for the first time in a national election. His genuine confusion was interesting as he tried to make sense of anything, even with so much information all around him. The problem is that we’re pounded with it, over and over.

When I’ve worked on projects where I need to get a message to an audience, I’ve learned that you need to send it in as many ways as possible since most of us get so much information every day that we may miss it or put it aside. Some of my friends rarely read an email and have no idea how to tweet or text. Snail mail may work best with them. Maybe. Most of us need it all to make something stand out. Repetitive jabbing at the consciousness. Obviously, politicians embrace this technique to the extreme. No publicity is bad publicity, as they say.

So, the end result of all of this constant repetition of the confusing messages is a sense of alarm, a gnawing fear that this year’s elections are leading us to a place most of us don’t want to go. Every day is some new trigger from our state legislatures, the election rallies and debates, local craziness. Always something.

It doesn’t help that I’ve just finished two books that revolve around Germany in the 1930s, “In the Garden of Beasts,” by Erik Larson and “The Boys in the Boat,” by Daniel James Brown. Read them both. You’ll learn from the first one and feel better about being human from the second. My brain is full of images of Hitler’s speeches inciting the crowds to follow him blindly into the evil chaos that was to come. Do we never learn from history?

I understand being fed up with the powers that be. When did we become a country that only worked for our political parties and not for the people? What is this stalemate that has been created in state and national legislatures where you can’t vote for your conscience or for what you know, only for what your party leaders tell you to vote for – if you want to be reelected. And who doesn’t want to be reelected, especially to a national office where you get perks for life even if you’re an idiot and only serve one term. Wow!

In the past months, I’ve had nightmares, real nightmares, about Donald Trump. That’s the result of the constant pummeling at my brain that is coming out in my sleep. I need my sleep.

I have no solution for the madness that is going on around us other than to be careful with your votes. I’m not even sure I want you all to vote if you’re going to continue voting the way you have been. “The people speak” isn’t as reassuring as it used to be.

Last year, one of my favorite movies was Disney’s “Cinderella” with its message: Have Courage and Be Kind. My new mantra.

Right now, I’m going to look away from all the nuttiness and say goodbye to Winter with it’s slanted light and lovely images through the bare skeletons of trees…DSC_0002

…and say hello to Spring with its burst of Hope we need today and every day. Maybe the Spring rains will wash away some of the nastiness that is creeping into our souls.DSC_0003

 

 

Great teachers never stop teaching.

Last month, I traveled to Kansas City with one of my main purposes to see my high school Latin teacher, who turned 95 that week. Bea Notley was not only one of the best teachers I had in a lifetime of exceptional teachers, she is also a friend and one of the neatest people I’ve ever known. She had come to our high school class’s 50th reunion a few years ago and I had promised myself I would go see her.

One would add that this little Scots woman is also a role model for any of us at her age. She fell a couple of years ago and moved to a retirement home so her children wouldn’t have to worry about her. She told me that was the least she could do for them. When I arrived, she greeted me at the door to the home with a walker, much smaller than I remember, and then sped off so fast I had to catch her. She only needs it for balance evidently. Good grief. She had lost none of her spunk or her enthusiasm for life, which was a delight.

After a tour of her apartment, a one-room studio with bed, living area, bath and kitchenette, we went to lunch with some of the men she likes to eat with. She told me they had lost a couple along the way. I have to say that these guys were absolutely fascinated with her and I thought to myself that they are probably closer to my age than hers. Before I came, she told me on the phone that she pays for three meals, but prefers to cook her own breakfast because there are only so many meals she can eat in a room full of old people who are younger than she is.IMG_0207

Outside her door is a bookshelf full of the Latin textbooks I remembered so well, along with other texts. I told her I still had some of them with my handwritten notes inside, including all the Latin phrases we memorized each year. Her daughter was afraid the books would be stolen, but she said nobody would steal them after reading the titles. There was also a framed cartoon that she had quoted when she spoke at our reunion.IMG_9187

A note on that – at one point while speaking at our reunion, she called all of her former students up to the front and told us all to sing “Gaudeamus Igitur” with her. To say we all started singing, even though most of us hadn’t exactly been humming that every day for fifty years, is an understatement. Something snapped and we all sang out like we practiced every day. It was a showstopper.

One of the places we stopped was a memorial plaque to the veterans who lived in the home. Bea said her nameplate would be ready soon. She served as a WAC in World War II. When the memorial opened in Washington D.C, she attended the ceremony. She said she hadn’t thought too much about it, but standing there with all those women made her so proud to be a part of it.

Bea spends her days in the retirement home reading from the books she has left, especially her Will Durant collection. In the early evening, she turns on PBS and watches television for a bit. That’s all she can stand. She must keep busy around the center since she seemed to know everyone we passed. She told me she should just figure how to lie down and die at her age but she couldn’t do it. That made me laugh. Bea is more alive than many much younger people I know. And sharper. And more fun.

My visit was much too short for both of us so I will have to return soon. I told her the next time we’d get out of there and go someplace fun. I had invited her to do that this time, but she had things to show me. She wants to take me to a cider mill next fall and who knows what in between.

The reason I wrote this was not to tell about my visit but it is so fun to remember that I couldn’t help myself. This woman has taught me so much from the four years of Latin I took with her through our encounters over the past years. She is a treasure of the best kind.

As we were touring her space, I pointed to a photo of President and Mrs. Obama hanging on the wall. She nodded and said there will always be a photo of the President in the Notley home. She said she got some criticism for it around the home, but she said we should always respect the office of the President. I was so taken with the directness with with she told me this, the matter of fact tone she has always had. There is no excuse with her for not having respect.

There are so many things I took away from our visit, mostly her strength and the way she continues to inspire me. But, that photo of the President will stick with me. We have strayed so far in this country from the kind of respect she shows. I haven’t liked every president, but I try to respect the fact that they are in that office because they were elected and are doing a job that is more difficult than we can imagine. She brought it all back home to me. And I remember who helped instill those kind of values in me.

As I said, a teacher never stops teaching. Thank you, Bea!DSC_0097

 

 

At an age when I met my first Jewish friends and was beginning to learn a little about their religion, I first read Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl. I was Anne’s age, going through the same kind of emotions, and she educated me about a horrific world so far from my own experience but not so far back in time. Anne died in 1945, the year I was born, only about fourteen years ago in history as I was reading.

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Then the movie, starring Millie Perkins as Anne, was released in 1959, bringing the story to life with its black and white seriousness. For girls my age, besides the historical aspects, it was the story of the changes in our relationships with parents and the world and romance as we dreamed it could be. It was the story of a girl our age who was dealing with an adult world with worries and fears we believed, with the innocence of youth, that we would never have to face.

I don’t know if I read the book again through the years, but I suspect I did. This was one of the books that touched something inside me and stuck with me through the years. By the time Melissa Gilbert appeared as Anne in the 1980 TV movie, my oldest daughter was about the age to understand the story. Another generation of girls to share the story, although I was now relating to the mother, all the parents in the story, as well as Anne. Her criticisms of her mother made me wince as I remembered that period in my life when I thought my own mother was hypercritical of everything I did.

In 1982, we were fortunate enough to travel to Amsterdam. I don’t know if my husband related to it as much, but we walked down the street to the building where the story took place and it all felt very familiar to me. Today, I see pictures of lines of people in front of the house and a glass fronted museum in the building next door. When I went, I only remember going into the building, seeing a few plaques and information pieces, although I guess there were some artifacts as I look back through materials I saved. What I do remember is seeing the stairs behind the bookcase and starting up, suddenly gripped by the enormity of the experience. Inside the famous Annex, my main memory is of the wall of Anne’s room with her photos of movie stars and royalty pasted on the walls, exactly as she left them. Today, they are behind plexiglass, but in 1982 we were confronted with the reality. I don’t remember furniture or anything else but those photos, such a link to that young girl. I treasure the visit, the walking up those stairs into the rooms that seemed so familiar. The solemnity of being there, the enormity of my feelings is with me today, thirty-three years later.

Recently, I recorded a documentary on the National Geographic Channel, Anne Frank’s Holocaust. Amazing how her name draws me in, makes me want to learn more. Taking Anne’s life, the filmmakers superimposed photos of Anne and her family and friends onto photos taken today and took the viewer through the events of the war in Holland. Using the Frank family as the center focus, they were able to show what happened, tracking the residents of the Annex to the end of their lives. I was especially taken with the two women who had been childhood friends of Anne’s describing her personality before the war reached them and telling the incredible story of how they were reunited in the camps shortly before Anne died. My heart broke as they told of the emaciated Anne, stripped of her vibrancy, looking for bread to take to her sister. What fortune to be able to see that these two women survived and were able to finish Anne’s story, no matter how sad the ending. The documentary brought new insight to the plight of the Jews and the horror of the camps, where the extermination of the prisoners continued at an accelerated rate even though the Germans knew the end of the war was in sight.

The impact of this documentary was to make me re-read the diary, to see if it had the same impact on me today. I remembered that a newer version had been released, so I downloaded a copy of this one with 30% more content. The editors of the first edition had asked Otto Frank to edit out some of the more personal details involving Anne’s sexual feelings. I think I read that he had also taken out more of the entries which criticized her mother. Interesting that I was now reading Anne’s diary as a woman quickly approaching 70 with a granddaughter the age of Anne. The third generation of my family to reach Anne’s age – I need to make sure she reads the book.

I also looked for the movie and found a new version originally shown on PBS’ Masterpiece and now on Netflix. I think it was based on the newer version of the diary. I thought it was very good. The story never fails to move me.

Once again, I’m impacted by the importance of this young girl’s writing, her story. One of the things I take with me is the extensive education she received and the quality of her writing. Her understanding of languages, the use of words, and the events of history were beyond her age. Those things are impressive. I related to her love of mythology as it recalled my own obsessions with the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses. The depth of her story lies in her studies of herself and the people she lived with in such close quarters. Always an observer and critic, as shown in the entries before they went into hiding, she grew in maturity over the two years of the diary as she wrote of the changes in her own body and emotions. Her criticisms of her parents, especially of her mother, are familiar themes to teen age girls. I can relate through my own youthful years of eye rolling, followed by the impatience of my own daughters with me, and the current status of my granddaughter and her mother, eye rolling evidently being passed down. I can read the diary entries from Anne’s viewpoint and imagine the mother’s side of the same event without taking sides.

Even though the diaries have been authenticated through the years, there are those who wish to censor Anne’s thoughts, deeming them too sexually explicit. I am horrified to learn that this important book has been removed from libraries today under pressure from parents who must have forgotten what it was like to be young or remember and think they can stop the thoughts and emotions of their own developing children. I am grateful I was able to dwell in Anne’s world in my youth. But, Anne was lucky too, as her parents encouraged her to read even when their annex-mates criticized the mature works she chose. I guess there will always be those who wish to impose their own views on us but it doesn’t make it right.

Anne Frank was all of us, all the young teens wishing for acceptance and love, yearning to be independent, yet clinging to our parents in times of stress. She was all of us, struggling through the stages of adolescence with its emotional ups and downs, its frustrations and joys. She was all of us, adoring celebrities and comparing our daily lives with the glamor of theirs, emulating the styles of the day, trying to come to terms with the body, personality and life we have been given.

Anne Frank will always be important for putting a human face on the atrocious war experiences that we would like to forget. The details of life in hiding and life in Holland in general are dramatic in the people’s acceptance of what day to day reality was and bring the difficulty of their lives into experiences we can visualize. Because she is so human and so relatable, she makes it impossible for us to turn our heads and think that such things never happened or will never happen again. Anne Frank is my constant reminder that people are capable of doing terrible things to one another. Anne Frank also is a reminder that even in the worst of times, there is hope.

Less than a month before their capture, Anne wrote,”in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” She inspires us to examine ourselves and be as good as she believed we are.

 

As a little girl, I devoured books of all kinds, but I had a love affair with fairy tales and magic, advancing into the OZ books as I grew older.  I can remember checking out anthologies of fairy tales over and over from the library.  I don’t know if Cinderella was my favorite, but I loved the story.  The Disney animated version came out when I was about 4, so I may have seen it later in a re-release.

We had a set of books called My Book House at home.  I still have the well worn set, which I read and re-read through my childhood.  IMG_6663One volume had the story of Cinderella, so I may have read this one before I saw the movie.  Or at least around the same time.  This is adapted from the French version, which is the one we all know so well.  IMG_6660No matter how many versions I read or saw, I believed them all.  I was a little girl who got caught up in the magic and didn’t really care if it was plausible or not.  I loved these stories.

The Disney version of the story is definitely a classic because who doesn’t love seeing Gus Gus and Jacques outsmart the wicked cat, Lucifer?  Who doesn’t want a plump Godmother to appear and wave her magic wand and sing “Bibbidi, Bobbidi, Boo?”  And a handsome prince to fall in love with.  Of course.  The vivid colors and wonderful songs and humorous characters are favorites around the world.  I met a young African American girl yesterday who said it was her favorite movie as a child.  We all seem to identify with Cinderella, even in her blonde-haired, blue-eyed version.

Several years ago, I was working with a curriculum called “Different and the Same,” developed by Mr. Rogers’ company for students in grades 1-3.  The programs are wonderful and I was privileged to be able to take this into some of our public schools to talk to the students about diversity.  One of the units was called “Cinderella and Me,” and my research while preparing for classes found that there are over 1,200 versions of the Cinderella story, which appears in every, yes every, culture.  There are even versions with boys in the lead role.  I know of a cowboy and an Irish male version, among others. Because many of the students I met were Hispanic and Native American, I took versions from those cultures with me to read to them.  You can’t imagine the joy on their faces seeing versions with heroes and heroines who looked like them.  I borrowed the Hispanic version, but I still have my copy of “The Rough Faced Girl,” an Algonquin Cinderella.  Look at this illustration of the cruel sisters off to try and marry the “Invisible Being.”

IMG_6662I also have a copy of the Thai version of the Disney classic, which a friend gave me to show the students.  It was an easy lesson to show them that children around the world enjoy the same things.IMG_6661My grandchildren have grown up mostly with the Disney version.  I hadn’t though much about it in the last years until I heard that Walt Disney Co. was bringing out a live version of Cinderella.  I was a little doubtful, thinking that it might be a bit silly, being a live movie from a cartoon.  Still, it looked interesting and I took my 5-year old granddaughter along with my friend and her 6-year old granddaughter.  They were both familiar with the animated version, being of a princess generation.  Like all little girls, these two have their own personalities, with my granddaughter liking dresses and frills and her friend liking monsters and sporty clothes.  Mine hadn’t been to a movie except animated ones, so this was a definite adventure.

Well, I have to tell you that the reason that we love Disney movies is still there.  This is a wonderful version, one that I keep thinking about.  The story is ages old, but there was magic and love and humor and some lessons to be learned, no matter how old you are.  I sat down in the theater next to a couple I know well, who laughed that they didn’t have their grandkids here as an excuse, so they came by themselves.

In this modern age with amazing computer generated images to take your breath away, the movie is lush and the characters are well developed.  In this one, we learn more about Cinderella’s parents and their life before the mother dies.  At one point, my friend’s granddaughter was frightened that everyone would die, since we had seen Cinderella lose both of her parents.  The evil step-mother is still evil, but we have more of her story and there is a chance you might even sympathize with her situation in life, although not her treatment of her stepdaughter.  I found that very brave of the movie makers to not make her just a black and while villainess.  At my age, you can have a second of pity for her.  A second.  There’s still no excuse for being mean, no matter what has happened to you.

Cinderella promised her mother to always “Have courage and be kind.”  How simple does that sound?  Those words get Cinderella through all the cruelty that her stepmother and comical stepsisters heap on her and win the heart of the Prince, who has his own issues with his father and his lot in life.  This is no wimpy Cinderella and mindless Prince.  They actually discuss what his marrying a non-princess will mean.  They make choices.  Very cool.

I was mesmerized with the scenes where the Fairy Godmother worked her magic, without uttering one single Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo that I detected, although the loudness of the sound track scared my granddaughter.  She was also frightened by the final scene with the Stepmother, although I reminded her that she should know that Cinderella will be ok and marry the prince.  Such is the way our minds suspend what we know in the throes of a story.  Who knows what goes on in the minds of our little ones?  I was more obsessed with the tiny waist Cinderella had, hoping they used computers for that and didn’t cinch up the lovely actress.  That’s where I am in life.

In the end, this will be another Disney classic, another version of the timeless story.  The final conclusion was that we all loved it.  My friend and I were actually blown away, in our grandmother ways.  I plan to return with my three daughters, daughter-in-law and 13-year old granddaugher, if she’ll go with us.  Me?  I recommend you read all the versions of Cinderella you can find, watch all the versions you can see.  We’re following a tradition that has found its way around the world again and again through centuries of telling the story.  This new one is definitely a keeper!  IMG_6628

 

 

I had some time to kill at Oklahoma State University yesterday and there was a subject I wanted to research, one that OSU has in their archives. I’d walked past the library earlier in the day, always a beautiful sight, admiring the Christmas wreath and garlands. IMG_5764I’d been actually dreading going into this beautiful building because I have such warm memories of spending hours with the card catalogue, digging through shelves of periodicals for an article I needed for a research paper, copying notes onto index cards.  There were no copy machines or computers in those days.  You either checked out the book or did the research on site.  There was comfort in the shelves of books and periodicals, the dark wood tables and chairs.  I grew to love the search and the activity it took to find the information I needed to support my thoughts.

I knew it would be different – I’ve been in local libraries after all.  I understand the computers and having everything online and that the experience has changed.  I’m not against it, but I wasn’t quite ready to really see it in person in this building.

Approaching the building, the incredible chimes were playing the OSU alma mater, which was comforting.  I walked in the front doors…  IMG_5769…loving the brass doors.  I went through the security scanners and up the stairs with the beautiful brass handrails.  Reaching the next floor was like coming into a new century, to say the least.  There were tables and chairs and couches and lots of students with laptops.  I didn’t see any books at all.  There were some offices and a wonderful room decorated old style where students lounged and studied for finals.

I wandered around, wondering how you find anything and went back down the stairs to the lower level where there was an information desk and lots of tables with computers.  There was a space in the back of one corner where there were shelves of periodicals. Yay! Something familiar.   I realized I was supposed to find a computer, but wasn’t really sure about how this worked, so I approached the desk.

Me:  “Hi.  I haven’t been here since 1969.”

Student:  “Well, welcome back!”

She was great, turning her computer to show me the website.  I told her I had a log-in and could take it from there, so I found an empty computer and logged in.  I maneuvered around and found the information I was looking for, which I also accessed from home.  I was looking for more, but there it was.

I finished up and left.  What can you say?  I hadn’t wandered down a row of shelves or handled a book.  That was weird, at least for me.  It’s the library and I’m happy that students are in there, soaking up the information.  As I walked away, the chimes were playing “Frosty the Snowman,” which rang across campus and I passed three girls smiling with their arms around each other, singing to the music.  Their finals were over and they were probably heading home for the holidays.

It’s all good.  We’re moving ahead in our technical world.  But my memories of those long ago days in the quiet rooms of dark wood and shelves of books is still sweet.  Sigh.

 

 

There are people I run across while reading or traveling or meet in person who fascinate me to the point that I start learning all about them to see if they are truly as wonderful as I’ve been led to believe.  Blame it on my degree in English and all those research papers, but I really get obsessed with digging through books and the internet to see what I can find.

My latest obsession is close to home.  I graduated from Oklahoma State University and, of course, knew the mascot, Pistol Pete.  I’m not sure I was aware that he is the ONLY college mascot based on a real person, although I knew there was an actual Pistol Pete.  Back in the days before the abundance of branding, we didn’t see Pistol Pete, the mascot, except at sporting events.  How I wish I’d been there just a few years earlier.

The real Pistol Pete was Frank Eaton and he lived about ten miles from OSU.  He became the mascot in 1923 when he was still alive and liked to roam the campus, wearing his guns on his belt.  He walked the sidelines at football games and spoke to classes, demonstrating his quick draw until he shot a bullet into a wall in the Student Union basement during a class.  The hole is still there, evidently.

Frank Eaton wrote an autobiography, “Pistol Pete: Veteran of the Old West,” that is astounding for many reasons and almost too rich in details of life in Indian Territory in the late 1800s to believe.  I’ve tried to find someone to debunk it, but all I’ve found are facts to make it more believable, even though he may have fudged or not known his actual birthdate, which allowed him to be a lawman in his teens.  He wrote the book, or dictated it to his co-writer, when he was in his 90s, which could make it doubtful.  When she was in her 80s, I asked my mother a question about her childhood and she replied with incredible detail, drawing a picture of her grandmother’s house with all the plants outside, the furniture inside, etc.  Memories are an amazing thing and I’m sure Frank Eaton had told his stories too many times to forget.

I won’t go through the details because I’d love for you to discover his life yourself, even if you just go to Wikipedia.  This guy was the real deal.  His father was shot to death by six men in the doorway of their home with eight year old Frank watching.  A family friend told him he was no kind of a man if he didn’t avenge his father and get the killers, so he learned to shoot at eight, perfecting his accuracy and quick draw until he was the best in the territory.  He was appointed to be a marshall in his teens, killed five of the cattle rustling thieves who killed his father, worked chasing bad guys for the Cattlemen’s Association and the marshals, was a bronc buster, rode in cattle drives, worked on cattle ranches, worked in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, was in the land rush, farmed, was a blacksmith and a water-witcher who not only could find water, but climbed down in the holes to place the dynamite.  He was absolutely fearless, didn’t drink, played cards, smoked, cussed like a sailor except in front of women, and even learned to play the fiddle.  No matter what you think, you can’t dispute his prowess as a quick draw master.  There are films on YouTube of him demonstrating when he was in his 90s.  Amazingly fun to see.  Here’s one of my favorite pictures of him.  He never lost this persona.  pistol10

What I love most about Frank from the various accounts I’ve read is the kind of man he was.  After all his adventures, he married a woman he loved.  They were homesteaders and struggled and had two daughters.  His wife died, leaving him with the two girls and he kept them near him.  He remarried another woman and had eight more children.  He worked as a blacksmith in Perkins, OK and never tired of showing off his shooting skills or telling his stories.  One man who lived there said he loved to show off by hitting two matchsticks from twenty yards, never missing.  Gunshots could be heard in Perkins, followed by his loud laugh, “Ho Ho Ho!” He even wrote a column for the Perkins paper when he was in his 90s.  Even though he never spoke of attending school, his daughter said he wrote one of his books by hand in his Spencerian style.  He had a wonderful sense of humor, which shows in the stories he told, some of them tall tales that match those of Mark Twain and Bret Harte.  He may not have made them up, but he knew how to tell them.

He was a legend in his own time, which delighted him no end.  He rode in the parades, which is where OSU students saw him and asked him to be their mascot.  He spoke to school children.  Listening to tapes of him speaking, you get a feel for his story telling ability, which must have been a delight for those who stopped by to visit him in his Perkins home.

I visited his home recently in the park where the citizens of Perkins have moved it and dedicated a huge statue to him.  IMG_5333DSC_0011You can find photos of him sitting on the porch of this house, entertaining guests.  Everything looks the same.

This larger than life man was actually small, standing at 5’5″ in his later years.  He had a lazy eye, which makes his incredible shooting skills even more intriguing.  He wore his hair in long braids, always had a gun on his belt, would give the shirt off his back to anyone in need, loved his kids and grandkids, and never asked for anything that I can tell.  He was definitely a character, decidedly a hero, and, at the very least, someone you wish you had met.

When I see his image on everything imaginable at OSU, I smile, knowing that he would have absolutely loved it.  My big regret is that I reached campus a mere five years after he died.  Isn’t that unbelievable?  There are people alive today who walked to class beside a real life cowboy from frontier days, wearing his guns and telling his stories.  How much fun would that have been?  I’ll have to settle for reading his stories, seeing his home and other memorials to him in small museums around the state, and knowing that such a person really did proudly live in the state I call home.  And seeing his image around campus, including the current mascot.  I hope we all do him proud.

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Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in Missouri.  He was born there, she died there.  They both wrote fiction based on their childhood.  Last week I visited both of their homes and came home with a renewed fascination with these two remarkable people.

I had been to Hannibal 15 years ago with my son.  He was working with an improv comedy group in college and I told him he needed to learn more about one of the greatest stand up comedians, Mark Twain.  We spent an afternoon in Hannibal, listening to Hal Holbrook’s tape on the way back to school, a couple of hours away.

Nothing much had changed at Mark Twain’s boyhood home since I had been there, which is a good thing.  The night we arrived, I sat on a bench at twilight in front of his home and looked down the street at the Mississippi River while I ate huckleberry ice cream.  It seemed like the perfect way to start the visit.  The white picket fence had a bucket with brushes tied to it so you could take your picture while pretending to whitewash the famous fence.  Last time I visited, the fence had extended further, but they’ve built a lovely garden on what was an empty lot.

DSC_0075The house is well preserved.  I saw pictures around town of Mark Twain standing in front of the house on his last visit to Hannibal in 1902.  He’d come a long way from his days as young Sam Clemens.  My favorite picture was of the photographers and reporters taking pictures of him as he visited, while young boys and townspeople looked on.  He was a rock star in his time.mt hannibal visit boyhood home I had strolled up and down the streets and the river, taking it all in once again.  The mighty Mississippi that I first learned about through his books spread out before me.  The hill where Tom and Huck played to my left, the building where young Clemens first worked for a printer in front of me, his father’s courtroom beside me.

In the morning, I took the tour of the house again, picking out the window he climbed out, as described in Tom Sawyer.  Before you go through the house, there is a nice interpretive center that gives a timeline of his life and gives the background on what in his books is taken from his life, which people he used for the characters.

We visited the other museum downtown with its nice interactive area that would appeal to children and its collection of first editions and copies of Twain’s books in many languages.  My favorite is the collection of the Norman Rockwell paintings that were the illustrations for one of the reprints of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  What a match of two great artists with their sense of humor and small town living.  I only wish they also had some of the originals of another Missouri artist who illustrated the books at another time, Thomas Hart Benton.IMG_4969

This trip, I took the riverboat cruise to get the feel of being on the Mississippi.  It’s a strong, wide body of water and there is a peace about floating along its waters.  I must admit that I was thinking of kids on rafts being in the middle of this current.  I shook my head at the dangers.  Later, I captured a photo of this little town on the river from Lovers Leap bluff with the riverboat coming in and a train rolling by. I could live easily with the sound of the boats and the trains.  DSC_0133Before I left town, I looked up the street towards the statue of Tom and Huck, the first statue dedicated to fictional characters in the United States, and the hill where Sam Clemens played.  Even with the hardships his family endured, his childhood was idyllic in his memory.  I took a graduate level class on Twain in college, but my travels through the places he wrote about, Hannibal, Virginia City, San Francisco, and more, bring him to life just as he brought those places to life for all those who delight in his writing.DSC_0144

On my way home from this trip to Missouri and Kentucky, I found that we would pass by Mansfield, MO, where the Laura Ingalls Wilder home and museum are located.  I came to her books later in life when my oldest daughter was reading them.  I picked one up, read the whole series and searched for more.  I found a biography of what her real life was like, much harsher than the books in childhood.  Mansfield is where she and her husband, Almanzo, her precious Manley as she called him, and her remarkable daughter, Rose, settled.  Once again, the museum was a delight, filled with so many actual items from their lives along with a timeline of both Laura and Rose’s lives.  DSC_0344The family that got out of the van next to our car in the parking lot looked like they had stepped out of Laura’s time, but they were Amish, a family paying tribute.  Other little girls scampered around the grounds, wearing sunbonnets and long dresses, playing Laura from the books and television series.DSC_0346I was reminded that Laura didn’t start writing the books until she was 65, when the stock market crash had wiped Laura and Almanzo out of their investments in their retirement.  Then she wrote one about every two years, writing into her 80s.  Once again, the museum helped sort out fact from the written memoirs, bringing new dimensions to the stories.  And I gained new knowledge and appreciation for the accomplishments of the remarkable Rose Wilder Lane, Laura and Almanzo’s only surviving child, herself a renowned author, journalist, and political activist.

Our guide through the farm house and the little rock house that Rose built for her parents was a delight, an older woman who had actually known Laura and brought so much life to the tours.  She was all that I love about small towns and Missourians with her openness, friendliness and sense of humor.  I love the fact that Almanzo built the entire farmhouse in stages, using materials from the farm, taking 18 years to complete it.  I love that the counters and cabinets in the kitchen were designed for his small wife, who was only 4’11”.  He was only 5’4″, so everything was to scale.  No wonder she was nicknamed “Half Pint” by her Pa.  He built much of the furniture, including chairs that were low to the ground.  I felt I knew Laura after seeing her favorite collections of china and the things she treasured around her, including her beloved library.  I love the fact that she only got a refrigerator a year before she died.  We take such things for granted.  It’s typical that Rose bought the refrigerator, always wanting to bring her parents into the modern world. DSC_0348The little rock house that was a Christmas gift from Rose to her parents was built from a Sears & Roebuck plan using rocks from the property, supervised by Almanzo.  This is the house where Laura actually wrote her first four books in the Little House series, marching up the hill to the farmhouse to discuss them with Rose, who helped with editing and shaping these stories for publication.  DSC_0353I would love to have listened to these two strong willed women argue over the drafts of the books, each fighting for one change or another. And Almanzo, walking with his cane since his stroke early in their marriage, walked down the rock stairs to the field below to milk the goats and carry the milk to the other end of the field to store in the spring house.  I also love that Rose bought them a car in 1923 and they loved it, using it to take trips to California and Minnesota and nearby Springfield whenever they felt like getting out.  Almanzo and Laura were the true story of how our country grew.  Unknown

I hadn’t planned to visit both places when I left home, but they made nice bookends to the trip.  Two of my favorites when I read their works and even more beloved now that I can see them in their homes and know so much more about them as real people who looked back on their childhoods, discarded the worst memories and transformed the best into stories that continue to inspire readers of all ages today, teaching us about the strength of human nature, the joy in relationships, and the humor in mankind.  Classics in every sense of the word.

What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

I saw this quote yesterday and it echoes the thoughts I have often now that there are more days behind me than in front of me in this life of mine.  I’m fascinated with the things we remember in a lifetime.  There are a lot of things I can’t believe I don’t remember in detail and wish I did.  There are things that I remember vividly and wish I didn’t.  Maybe this is why I like photos so much – they trigger memories of all kinds in this cluttered brain of mine.

I recently read that old people don’t think slower, they just have more stored in their brains to sort through, like a giant file cabinet filled to overflowing that you have to search methodically for the information you need.  That’s a pretty old school analogy, hunh?  At least that’s comforting – to think you’re not losing it, you just have too much of it.

The other thing that I wonder about is the way people remember the same thing.  I’ve talked with friends about the way members of a family see an event differently, based on their age, family position, personality, etc.  Sometimes a small moment can make a lasting impact on a person’s life while a potentially life-changing occurrence is put in perspective and has little importance in the long run.

Perspective on the memories we have is something that takes some conscious effort most of the time.  We can make choices about how we absorb a memory and it can also change as the years go on and we learn more about why it happened or how others perceived it.  Perspective is what keeps us going through life’s unexpectedness.  If we get locked in on the single impression as only seen by us, we may lose the ability to see it from other views, other people’s perspectives.  I’ve found that we’re healthiest when we learn to look at an event from many sides, to let it grow or shrink in importance to find its proper place in the timeline of our lives.

We all have memories and they can sustain us or crush us.  It’s all about working to put them in place.  It would be nice if we only had happy ones, but that rarely happens.  Memories make us who we are.  For better or worse.  When you lose your memory, you lose a lot of yourself, as seen in Alzheimer’s patients.

Enough of that – may all your memories be put in their place and may they mostly make you smile!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

OK – I can’t be the only person who brings home a carload of souvenirs from a road trip…can I? It’s not like I can’t remember the place or person, but I do tend to forget after a time and the things I pick up along the trails of my life make me smile as I walk by them or dust them and shake up a memory from a wonderful experience. My home is packed with such memories and I’m old enough to know I’ll never be a minimalist in any way. So, here’s what I brought home from my travels through the South this past two weeks…think what you will.

First are the general, sometimes tacky, souvenirs: hats, t-shirts, magnets, lapel/hat pins and a few books, including a Cajun Little Red Riding Hood, “Petite Rouge,” because I have other Cajun children’s stories and love to read them out loud. You can’t help but sound a little Cajun…DSC_1059

 

I’ve collected the pins since I was in Vienna way back in the 1970s and saw a man with pins on his hat in European fashion. I used to be somewhat casual about it, but ended up with quite a few and now always look for them. I have them on a little bulletin board in my laundry room that I pass by every day.DSC_0001

 

The refrigerator magnets are a new deal and I have to promise to stop…DSC_0002

 

I just bought a hat and t-shirt in the town where my father was born because that’s all they had. I bought a ball cap in Savannah to wear out on the water and a cute painted t-shirt in Charleston because I liked the artist.

Then there’s the food category, which really can get out of hand in the South…

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After all, I can’t get boiled peanuts and okra chips at home and who could pass up the Peach or Cherry cider and the Sweet Potato anything? And I wanted to see what was in red rice, so I bought a package, and then we went to Avery Island where they make Tabasco sauce and had to buy some of the new flavors. This is nothing compared to the souvenirs that didn’t make it home because they were eaten along the way…another blog. I did buy a cookbook from one restaurant to get the recipe for the best sweet potato soufflé I’ve ever eaten.

And we had to have things from the nature part of the trip, so I have seashells from the Katrina-wrecked beaches of the Gulf and puppets of animals from the National Parks we visited, Mammoth Cave and the Great Smokey Mountains.DSC_1067

 

Finally, there were the antiques and art I had to have. I’ve always liked to support local artists, especially when they have pieces that represent what I’ve come to love in their home. So that is why I came home with a ceramic mug and platter from potters in Fairhope, Alabama, a painting from the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and antique tobacco basket from Thomasville, Georgia (what am I going to do with this huge piece even though I love it and got quite a deal on it) and an antique framed book plate by a well known artist of the Charleston Renaissance period (I learned about that). Each piece of art came with a story to make it even more special.DSC_1068

 

Maybe because I’ve owned a gift shop and know what it’s like to have people wander in and not buy anything, maybe because I’ve worked with artists for years and want them to be appreciated, maybe it’s the things my mother taught me, but I never, NEVER come home empty handed. The end result is that my home is a warehouse for some pretty exciting travels that I love to remember. I can only hope my children will smile and laugh a bit when they have to clean this stuff out when I’m gone! I can feel their eyes rolling…

These quiet winter months have given me a chance to read more and I’ve met some interesting people between the pages – including electronic as well as paper pages.  I’ve been reading biographies the last few weeks and, as always happens in my case, I start looking for more information on the subjects I’ve met.  By coincidence, I’ve been reading about men and found that the women who shared their lives are every bit as fascinating, maybe more so.  You hear about the women behind the men, but I’ve learned that these women almost always are right there beside them, often through thick or thin in the every interpretation of that phrase from their wedding vows.

The first biography I finished was Steve Jobs.  Using his incredible creations made me more interested in the man with all the quirkiness and brilliance we have heard about.  I didn’t even know he was married, which was my ignorance but also due to his desire to keep his personal life private.  Laurene Powell Jobs is a remarkable woman who totally understood her husband.  He must have been hell to live with, but she accepted all sides of who he was and together they raised a lovely family.  She was also the philanthropic member of the family, giving her time and resources to educational interests of hers.  No matter what conclusion I had come to about them as a couple, the most touching thing I read was a description of the last meeting of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, when Jobs knew he was dying.  One of their topics was how lucky they both were to find wives that understood them so well.  Thanks that they recognize it!  I don’t think there are biographies of Laurene, but all who marvel over Jobs and his Apple products in our lives should also be thanking the stars for this beautiful, strong woman who stood right beside him.  They were a unique and modern love story.

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The second biography I read was The Hearsts, which I had purchased right after visiting Hearst Castle last summer.  While touring that incredible home, I was as intrigued by William Randolph Hearst’s parents as I was by him.  George Hearst was an uneducated genius at mining who lived in the right time and was in the right place – much as Steve Jobs was.  He became one of the richest men in the world through common sense and hard work.  One of his greatest decisions, at the age of 41, was to return to his hometown in Missouri to find a wife and come back with 19 year old Phoebe Apperson, a girl of some education and some teaching background.  Maybe his skills at mining taught him to spot something valuable in this young girl or maybe he just got lucky.  Her accomplishments influence us today as much as either her husband or her only son and her influence on both of them made them the men they became.  She did it all through the ups and downs of health and wealth.  We should all know her story without thinking as she helped bring us kindergartens and the PTA.  She was instrumental in helping the University of California develop and grow, and marched for women’s votes when she was seventy.  Essentially also a private person, she lived a large public life in a marriage that was based on love and respect, if not too many shared interests.  Who would have ever suspected all that this midwestern girl would become?  Another unconventional love story for the ages.

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The next book I read was The Aviator’s Wife, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  I’ve read many of Anne’s books and diaries and consider A Gift from the Sea to be a must read for all women.  Once again, the husband was a man larger than life and the wife was a young girl who loved her privacy.  If we think that the media hounds political or other public celebrities today, we have to look at the horror that was the life of Charles Lindbergh and his family as they dodged the press.  The handsome aviator was a rigid, demanding man who could not be wrong and that is the worst to live with.  Fortunately, Anne also loved him and was willing to meet the challenging demands he made of her.  She became the first woman to receive a first class glider pilot’s license and learned to navigate for her husband on their world wide flights.  Nobody could imagine what the kidnapping and murder of their first child would do to the world’s most glamorous couple.  It contributed to making him colder and more withdrawn and her stronger, for sure.  They persevered and held together, with Anne truly into her own when she wrote A Gift from the Sea and became a recognized author, all while raising their five children.  This was not an easy man to be married to, but Anne stood beside him to the end, becoming truer to her own dreams.  I’m not sure his star would still have shined as brightly to the end, even with his accomplishments, without her.  Even with his hidden families, I do believe he knew she was always there.

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After reading these books, I was also remembering Mary Montgomery Borglum, the wife of Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mt. Rushmore.  I saw a horrible show on him on the History Channel this week which only skimmed the information I had learned from a stack of books I read about them after visiting Mt. Rushmore.  Once again, this quiet wife stood beside this giant genius man and kept life sane in his larger than life quest for his art.  There are days I’m very glad I wasn’t married to a creative genius!  Hugs to these women who stick with that life.

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There are so many of these women, some standing beside men who wish they would step back, while others were proud to have them there.  The message of the stories of the famous should be to look around us at the women we know who do the same.  I know women have come a long way, but most of us still take our responsibilities as wives and mothers seriously.  Most of us give little thought to prioritizing our lives with family first.  What I’ve found, like the women in these stories, is that having that as a priority often brings us knowledge and opportunities that we use to become even stronger women than we would have without that husband and children.

The joy of discovery is that one inquisitive thought leads to a discovery that uncovers new information which leads to new insights.  Thank you to all the women I continually discover who have inspired me throughout my life.  Today, I salute Laurene, Phoebe, Anne and Mary!  There are so many more…