Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Music

I’m listening to Christmas music on Pandora today.  Just seems like a good thing to do on a quiet slow Christmas day.  Our festivities were last night.  We had a wonderful time.  The day ended with making potato candy with my youngest daughter.  She is off with friends today and wanted a treat to take with her.  It was fun.

Christmas music really sets a mood, doesn’t it.  I love Silver Bells because it reminds me of Christmas in New York City.  I sure hope I get to see the tree at Rockerfeller Center at least one more time.  I used to love to go see it with my dad.  I’ve even been there when it was lit.  What joy, what excitement!  After that, a trip across the street to the magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral to see the crèche, followed by some steaming hot chocolate made the day complete. 

Our first Christmas in Tennessee I was so homesick for New York and the East coast one of our daughters gave me some silver bells.  They still hang on our back door.  She told me when you see these bells think of Christmas in New York-I do.  However, now I miss her when I look at them. 

But Silver Bells is not my favorite Christmas song.  When I’m asked, as one is this time of the year, what is your favorite Christmas Carol, I hesitate.  My favorite is one that almost no one knows.  I usually answer that my favorite “popular” Christmas Carol is Joy to the World.  My favorite verse is the last one:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

I love the harmony of this Carol.  It just gives me the Joy that it declares. 

So what is my favorite?  One of my best Christmas presents was a record player.  I guess then it was like getting an mp3 player.  I also got some 45’s to play on it.  On one of these 45’s was an obscure ancient Carol, Good King Wenceslaus.   

The tune is wonderful and can be done fast or slow.  I like it both ways.  The tune is even more ancient that the song dating back to the 13th Century.  But the words – the words tell a wonderful story.  The Saint, King Wenceslaus went out in the snow of December 26 (the feast of St. Stephen).  He saw a poor man gathering sticks in the snow.  Moved to compassion the king orders his servant to help him feed this poor man.  He wants to “dine” with the man.  The servant grows tired in the cold.  He is told by the saint to step in the saints footsteps.  The warmth of the footsteps revives the servant and we are told that we are to bless the poor.

I am pondering this message today.  I am thinking about the homeless and those alone.  I am thinking about the poor with children who wanted to give their children so much more this Christmas.  I am thinking about God sending the greatest gift to earth, His son. 

Following in the footsteps of Jesus means we go to the poor, it means we go to the outcast, the foreigner, the stranger.  Who can you still bless this Christmas and throughout the year?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas at Tante Bitta's

Heavy snow is coming down today.  It is reminding me of a Christmas in Brooklyn.

One of my favorite people when I was a child was my “Tante Bitta.”  She was actually not my Aunt or Tante, she was my cousin.  However, like all of my first cousins on my father’s side, she was an adult when I was born and had children my age.  Out of respect, I called her Tante.  When I was little I couldn’t say her name Birgit; in my childish pronunciation she became Bitta.  We saw her and her family only occasionally until they moved within walking distance.  What a happy day that was!  Her eldest daughter and I became best friends.

So many things I could write about her daughter and I.  After putting 75 cents in the cigarette machine, we’d puff away for a few hours.   Believing we’d rather “fight that switch” after a brief usage of Marlboros we became Tareyton smokers.  Doused in perfume, with gum in our mouths we'd try to cover the smell.  My mother would be angry and yell, always snooping in my things to find evidence.  Birgit would just get a twinkle in her eye and shake her head.  Fortunately, my smoking “habit” was intense but very brief.

Like me, Birgit had a large family.  Like me, she had plenty of pain in this life.  If I think of a strong woman, I think of her.  She was witty, smart and beautiful.  She was hardworking and a survivor.  As a child, I loved her more than any other Tante or cousin.

The apartment she lived in on the second floor on 60th street was way too small for her family.  One of my earliest memories of visiting that apartment includes seeing her seventh and last child Paul, in a bassinet.  I loved seeing new babies.  Paul was no exception. 

My dad loved his niece.  I don’t know if he sponsored her when she came to the US.  I do know he looked after her in ways long forgotten.  At times he would take some of her brood with us on the explorations of NYC, the museums, the Statue or Central Park.  Our home was quiet as I was the only child there.  Birgit’s home was full of life, energy, and chaos.

It was Christmas Eve.  It was snowing very hard.  As we walked to Birgit’s with gifts in hand the snow stung our faces.  It was 7 blocks to their house.  At each curb we crossed, the piles of snow were deep.  My mother fell into one of them and was covered with snow.  We trudged on.  Finally, a snowy Virgin Mary was seen.  She graced the front of their house as the owners and first floor dwellers were Catholic. 

Birgit’s house smelled of turkey.  She had a large turkey in the oven of that tiny kitchen.  The table sat between the kitchen and the small living room that I think doubled as a sleeping area for some of the kids at night.  There was no fancy table setting, just the warmth of Christmas.  Wet cold clothes removed, we sat down where ever we could find a place for the delicacies she had lovingly prepared.

I don’t remember all the details, but somewhere Birgit had found a Santa Claus costume.  My dad would play Santa Claus for the Birgit’s children.  My dad had no natural beard and didn’t have a particularly large stomach.  The costume wasn’t very good.  But the kids were still small enough to believe and that was all that mattered.  I imagine like me, most of the people in their life had a Norwegian accent.  A Norwegian accented Santa was not difficult to believe in.

I knew it was my Dad.  I wish I had a picture.  I wish I could even in my mind see the look on Birgit’s face as her Onkel Olav who loved her so much came in with a Santa costume to delight her children.  I imagine my dad was there when Birgit entered heaven to welcome her just like he did when she came to America.  All the children of Johannes and Siri Jonassen were already there waiting for her.

Many years later, long after my father was gone I visited Birgit.  She lived in a much better house and life was better for her.  Over a ham sandwich at her kitchen table, she told me in Norwegian how Onkel Olav always left money for her to buy milk for the children.  I was now the young and struggling mother with many children.  She gave me some cash for my children’s milk. 

It was a long trudge back through the snow to our own apartment that Christmas long ago.  Like the song, the street lights twinkled bright red and green through snow covered lights.  Our neighbor was blaring Christmas music through a speaker attached to his house.  It was a snowy Christmas in Brooklyn. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Men Norsk Mor -- My "Norwegian" Mother

The smell of Norwegian baking just reminds me of Christmas and home.  At Christmas, my mother would bake for weeks filling the little railroad flat at 434-53rd Street with smells of cardamom, almond, and butter.  In that small kitchen in an old gas oven she worked her magic.  My mother had a well-worn stained Norwegian cookbook.  She was an American girl from Waynesboro PA who was transformed into a Norwegian speaking, acting and cooking woman when she said "I do" to a former Norwegian sailor from Arendal.
By the second grade I was allowed to cross streets by myself.  I would walk home  from school with Barbara.  Once in the vestibule I’d ring the bell.  The buzzer would sound to unlock the inner door.  Like going into the inner sanctuary of a holy place, an aroma better than the finest incense would greet my little nose.  Sniffing as I walked the hall to the kitchen, I would try to guess what had been baked that day.  If there was a yeasty cardamom smell, it meant Julekake.  Sometimes she was in her second or third batch; the yeast was doing its magic.  I was just in time to wash my hands and punch it down. 

Other times, the krumkake iron was on the stove.  These were the most coveted and delicious of all Christmas creations.  They were strictly rationed.  They were mostly for the company that would ring the bell announcing their arrival during Christmas.  The coffee pot and a platter of Norwegian deliciousness was always ready for serving.  

My mother hid the Christmas cookies from my little hands.  I always found them.  I would count the krumkake and judge if I could sneak one without being caught.  If questioned, I would lie leading me to lay in bed worrying that Jesus would come and leave me behind since I lied. One year, she hid them so well she didn’t find them until spring cleaning.  The ants had already found them, she took a brush and brushed them off.  We ate them.

My favorite cookie was fattigmann.  Fattigmann are a fried cookie.  We all know everything is better when it is fried.  Fattigmann, means poor man – translated these are “poor man’s cookies.”  My mother would say the same thing every year – “I don’t know why they call them poor man’s cookies, they take nearly a dozen eggs and lots of butter.”  I guess for a Norwegian farmer who had plenty of eggs and butter, these were cheap to make.  But when you got your butter and eggs from the local A&P, they were no longer for the poor.  She used the same pink pastry wheel to cut these diamonds as she used to make her doughy dumplings for Pennsylvania Dutch Slippery Pot Pie.

The reason why these were my favorite had nothing to do with their taste.  They are good, very good.  But they were my favorite because they were the only cookie that wasn’t rationed.  We always had an abundance of fattigmann.  I could eat as many as I wanted.

My mother used her cookbook to fill our house with Norwegian-ness.  In addition to the Julekake, fattigmann and krumkake, she would make dreams, sandbakkles, waffles, spritz, berlinerkrantz, sirupsnitter, pepperkake, and even American sugar cookies.  She made pretty good lefse too. But, the most curious of the Christmas delights was hjortetakk. 

Looking like a small unfrosted and unadorned brown donut, the most curious thing was one of the ingredients.  It calls for Harts horn.  You know the stuff from the antlers on a deer.  Where do you get that in Brooklyn?  Somewhere my mother discovered that Harts horn was also known as ammonium carbonate.  Evidently the druggist on 4th Avenue was what we now called a compounding pharmacist.  She would go each Christmas for a little envelope of ammonium carbonate from him.  This was one weird science project that tasted wonderful. 

She’d saved her grocery money for months to buy the almonds, cardamom, eggs, butter, flour, sugar and Harts horn.  She labored for weeks.  My father would smile as his Norwegian friends would come into the little living room and sit on the couch that she had also slip covered herself.  All our senses were alive with the taste and smell of a Norwegian Christmas, lovingly made by my “Norwegian” mother.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Coming of Age at Christmas

As I look back on that day, it was a real coming of age type of day.  I remember clearly standing by the front window of the subway as we rode back to our home in Brooklyn.  We lived for two years on Fort Hamilton Parkway.  I didn’t like living there.  I missed PS 94 and 53rd Street.  It was the world I had always known.  I knew each house and at least a little something about the people who lived there.  I knew to walk fast when I passed the tenements and to walk near the curb if I walked past the bar on the odd side of the street near 5th Avenue.  I suppose it was because we never had alcohol in the house and because of how my parents felt about it that I was always nervous walking past a bar.  I think I thought someone might reach out and grab me and I’d never be seen again. 

It was a lonely trip back to Brooklyn.  I don’t remember why my father wasn’t with us.  I was at an age where I was beginning to have those inevitable conflicts one has with their mother as they are approaching adolescence.  It wasn’t her fault.  It really wasn’t mine either.  It too was part of coming of age. 

We happened to secure a place on the front car of the subway.  In the little cubicle the engineer was steering the subway on its tracks.  The window in the front of the car allowed me to see the pillars and dark channel we traveled on.  There was a certain place there was an S in the tracks.  I remember saying something to one of my friends about the S in the track one time while riding that route, they thought I was talking about a four letter word starting with S and teased me forever about it.  I had ridden many times on that route and in the front car, I just meant the track formed an S.  Sometimes you’d see another subway coming toward you on the parallel track. 

My father knew the subway system like a master navigator.  He knew whether you should be in the front of the car or the middle or back to ease your exit or your transfer.  His last job in NYC put this skill to great use as he worked as a messenger delivering items around the city.  It was a perfect job for him.

This day, as I rode the train home, I was thinking that growing up had its draw backs.  For as long as I could remember, part of our Christmas joy was a trip to Manhattan to the annual Christmas party for the children of employees of Morgan Guaranty Bank.  It seemed this activity knew no class boundaries.  It was probably in the 3rd grade I realized my father was not a banker.  He worked at a bank.  When asked at school, what does your father do for a living or where does he work?  I would reply he’s a banker.  He worked at a bank that made him a banker, right?  No, he was a janitor that worked all night cleaning up after the real bankers.

There was no distinction on those glorious Saturday mornings at Morgan Guaranty Bank.  Like Catholic mass, there were time slots.  We usually went early as my father was excellent at making sure we had tickets for this event.  A trip on the subway, dressed in Christmas finery would take us to Wall Street or some other foreign area.  Arriving at the huge imposing bank, a friendly face would show us to a room where a magician or clown or other type of children’s entertainer would put on a most magnificent show.  When I was about 3 my joy graced the cover of their January employee magazine.  There I was, with my mom and my dad the immigrant janitor on the cover of a banking magazine. 

Once the show was over, we’d go to the cafeteria.  Free food served by smiling employees!   I don’t remember what I would eat, but I do remember the dessert.  It was a roll of vanilla ice cream, the shape of Swiss roll topped with thawed frozen strawberries.  It seemed so decadent to have strawberries and ice cream in early December.  After lunch we would walk through room after room of the most beautiful dolls.  I think back now and think how boring that must have been for the boys.  But for me, a lover of playing with dolls, it was like heaven.  I wanted one of those dolls but I wasn’t disadvantaged enough to have one.  The staff, mostly female staff, of this great bank would work for weeks to dress a doll to give to a somehow disadvantaged child.  I knew I should be thankful I wasn’t that disadvantaged, but at times I wished I were.  I wanted one of those beautiful dolls.

At last we came to the main event.  It was time to see Santa.  As a small child I marveled at the majesty of this Yule King on his throne.  This year, I was 12.  It was my last time to see Santa.  There would be no more Morgan Guaranty Children’s Christmas Parties.  I was officially no longer a child.  I got a board game from Santa.  Gone were the dolls and the toys.  He looked at me and I looked at him.  We both were uncomfortable.  I was becoming a woman.  I had pimples on my forehead and emerging breasts.  Later that day another sign of womanhood visited me.  It was a coming of age day.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

I’ve seen a lot of snow in my life.  As a child, the wonder of snow was real.  It seemed magical as the flakes of white would fall from the sky.  I remember making paper snowflakes in kindergarten.  How magical it was as Mrs. Pellegrino, one of the first pregnant people I ever saw on a daily basis, showed us how to cut with those blunt stubby scissors and make the designs of a snow flake.  She told us that in nature every snowflake was unique.  

She might have even uttered the forbidden word God as she told us this scientific fact.  In those days, we still prayed in school.  Yes, even in NYC we bowed our head and said a generic prayer at the beginning of the school day.  During weekly assembly we would also recite a Psalm from the Holy Bible.  The Psalms were common to all Judeo-Christian faiths.

There was something ethereal about the snow of my childhood.  Full of life and vitality, Brooklyn was noisy.  The cars, the buses, the sounds of the nearby subway, the chatter of people, the sounds of stickball in the street created a cacophony of sounds.  They all stopped or slowed as the snow mounded deeper and deeper.  Cars would disappear under a blanket of white.  The buses would slow and even the subway was muted and hushed. 

Anxious to hear the news that school had been cancelled, the TV or radio would announce the glorious news.  No school today in NYC.  I understand that is a rarity now, but it seemed to happen several times each year when I was a child.  Outside, bundled individuals with shovel in hand would begin digging out.  My father would start with the top of the stoop.  For those of you not from NYC, the stoop is the steps in front of your house.  We had four.  They were broad and wide.  I could jump from the top step to the pavement.  Then would come part of the “arey.”  An arey is the area in front of your house, sometimes bounded by a hedge, other times a fence.  It marked off the area where your living area began.  

Once these areas were clean, the sidewalk was shoveled.  Unlike where I live now, within hours of a snowfall you could safely walk the sidewalk to get to the bus or subway.  It was the law. I never saw the snow police or even heard of them.  People just did what was right.  On many blocks however, there’d be an empty lot.  That patch would remain ice until God melted the snow, or someone decided it was time to chop it away.
In wonder I would watch cars being uncovered.  Completely covered the tank like vehicles of the 50’s and 60’s would slowly reappear, engines started and cars moved.  After a storm alternate street parking was suspended.   Of course one didn’t need their car during the storm, nor did they ever need one.  Thousands of New Yorkers still find a car an unnecessary item.  My parents felt that way and never did we own a car.  What we couldn’t walk to, we could find a bus or subway to take us there. 

I was a sissy child, never one for confrontation or rough play.  This included snowball fights.  I remember building snow forts.  I liked that.  I would occasionally build a snowman in my arey.  Unfortunately, after the snow fort was built the inevitable snowball fight ensued.  I couldn’t throw so my snowballs always missed their intended target.  Worse was, I always got hit.  Usually in each fight someone would be a master at ice balls.  An ice ball is where you put a chunk of ice in the middle of the snowball.  This dangerous weapon would usually involve blood flowing on the fresh white snow and someone taking a trip for stitches.  Fortunately, I avoided that fate.

No this isn't my class nor am I in this picture
Eventually school would be open.  Brooklyn would resume its hustle and bustle.  I would trudge the 6 blocks to PS 94 and have to remove layer upon layer of clothing before reciting the pledge, praying and singing My Country Tis of Thee.  The room was warm; the kindly face of Mrs. Pellegrino told us it was time for work – the work of playing house, building blocks and other such wonders of Kindergarten play.  The windows were decorated with snowflakes made with chubby hands.  It was wonderous.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas is coming

The Christmas season has begun.  I knew nothing of the first Sunday in Advent as a child.  We had no Advent wreath or theme in the Norwegian Pentecostal church I attended.  The first Sunday of Advent meant the distribution of our Christmas “pieces” in preparation for the Christmas program.  As I’ve mentioned before, I always seemed to be expect to have the longest piece, or be a narrator.  To this day, I attribute my lack of fear of public speaking to those days.  I don’t ever remember being nervous about getting up in front of people to talk.  I’ve been doing it since before I can remember.

It was officially Christmas, I had seen Santa at the Parade on Thanksgiving Day.  Lights were twinkling from the houses in my neighborhood.  As you went toward 5th Avenue, the smell of pine mixed with a small coal fire filled the air.  Miraculously Christmas trees were lining the path to the wonders of 5th Avenue.

No I am not talking about the 5th Avenue that you normally associate with New York City.  I am talking about MY 5th Avenue, 5th Avenue Brooklyn.  Without crossing the street I could shop for shoes at Thom McAn’s shoe store, junk at the variety store, eat at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, or go to the bank.  Streets were understood in terms of “long streets” and “short streets.”  A long street was the distance between one avenue and another.  Short streets were the distance between “streets.”  The long streets were predominantly residential while most short streets had some commercial activity. 

Crossing 5th Avenue I could consume pizza.  To this day, I have found none to compare to King’s Pizza next to the fire station between 52nd and 53rd.  There was nothing you could not buy on 5th Avenue.   While 8th Avenue was all Norwegian, 5th Avenue had variety.  There were plenty of Norwegian shopping on 5th Avenue as well as Norwegian stores.  There was a Norwegian fish market where my mother would purchase fresh mackerel.  Something I dearly loved to have for supper.  

With my brother’s no longer home, my father declared that my mother needed a break.  On Sunday we’d climb the stairs to the second floor of 5414 5th Avenue to eat our Sunday dinner at Promenaden Restaurant.  My menu choice was Torskerogn with boiled potatoes and peas.  For dessert I’d have a delicious tyttebær shortcake.  If we were lucky we’d be seated near one of the large windows overlooking our 5th Avenue.  To me it was as glorious as eating at the fanciest restaurant at the 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

I am not sure why we stopped going to Promenaden for Sunday dinner.  I do remember that it was followed by TV dinners on TV trays.  While it seemed the “modern” thing to do, I missed those trips up the stairs for torskerogn.  Nevertheless, fiskaboller and torskerogn were staples in our home as well.

A new outfit for Christmas was mandatory.  Not only would you wear your Christmas outfit on Christmas day, it was necessary for the Christmas program.  Some years, that outfit would come from Lerner’s.  Some years we’d take the bus to Downtown Brooklyn to shop at A&S.  Rarely did it mean a trip to Manhattan to purchase an outfit at Macy’s or Gimbel’s.  Clothing was my mother’s domain, trips to Manhattan were my dad’s.  Usually preparation for my Christmas attire meant a trip to Woolworths to look at patterns and fabric.

I loved looking at the patterns.  I loved imagining how I would look, picking just the right fabric.  On a small Necchi sewing machine, my mother would create out of raw materials the most wonderful of Christmas outfits. I remember crushed velvet dresses and jumpers.  I remember plaid suits and satiny skirts with a flocked bodice.  Later I would create a denim jumper on this machine.  I would walk the halls of Pershing Junior High in my own creations made on this ancient Necchi machine.

But Christmas was weeks away, an eternity for a small girl in Brooklyn.  There was so much yet to be done.  School programs, church programs, my mother’s sewing and baking, the annual trip to my father’s work for the Christmas program, the tree at Rockefeller's Center... Christmas in New York was magical… later would come Juletree fests as we rotated around a Christmas tree with a little song pamphlet with Norwegian flag on both sides.  Yes, there was much more to come…and more to be told.



Friday, November 26, 2010

A Thanksgiving Morning Constitution

Memories of my father seem to be on my mind so much of late.  I miss him.  That seems odd in some ways.  I was a mere 19 years old when he died.  Old enough to have some very solid memories of him.  Old enough to have known him as a child knows a father.  But not old enough to know him as a person.

On those very rare occasions when my family of origin would gather for an hour or two.  That was all we ever did.  We were never close.  My brother's estranged themselves from my mother and I over thirty years ago.  At first it seemed just the way life was, family, moving and such.  But now I know it was deliberate.  They had no use for their mother and they never took the time to know or care for their sister.

When we would meet together, the bond between my brothers was solid.  They would laugh and joke and reminisce about a father I didn't know.  Often I thought them cruel and disrespectful, a strong characteristic of my eldest brother. I suspect their stories were filtered by their emotions.  However, my father was a different person by the time I came along in his early 50's.  Having passed 50, I know that the woman I was at 50 was not the woman I was at 30.  Our birth certificates all name the same man, but we didn't not know the same father.

On one of those occasions my older brother told me a story about our father.  Now this was the type of man I remember.  It is a Thanksgiving story.  It was either before I was born, or when I was very little.  There were no trips to the parade with me that year.  That Thanksgiving morning my father took a walk instead.  There was nothing unusual about my father taking a walk.  He called it his "constitution."

Every day when he'd awake from a few hours of daytime sleep (he worked nights), he'd get dressed and go for his afternoon constitution.  A brisk walk, regardless of the weather would often include a trip to the library.  My father would go to the library to read the newspaper.  He was a frugal and practical man.  He would buy the New York Daily News because it was tabloid size and easy to read on the subway.  He would go to read the large awkward pages of the New York Times at the library.  There was no need to buy two newspapers when the library provided them for free.
The view.  The campanile of St. Michael's and the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
The Fifth Avenue Entrance to the Park - the grand steps to paradise.
 Thanksgiving morning the library was closed.  This was before the consumerism of Black Friday so there were no ads to study either.  He went to the park.  Our local park, Sunset Park was glorious.  The playground was at the top of a hill.  The lawn started at 5th Avenue.  At Sixth was the playground and at 7th Avenue you had the entrance to the pool.  It is a beautiful park.  I learned to swim there.  I could see the Statue of Liberty from the playground.  And I would swing to the clouds.
The entrance to the pool facing Seventh Avenue.
The only place to be on a summer afternoon in Sunset Park.
For more pictures of Sunset Park, see here.

My father found a lonely man at the park that day.  I understand he was Norwegian. He lived in a boarding house alone.  He was an alcoholic.  Perhaps moved by the Spirit of God, or just human kindness, my father, ever friendly and relational, talked with the man.

 A walk on a winter's day, perhaps on one of these benches sat the man.

In the spirit of thankfulness my father brought the man home with him for Thanksgiving dinner.  Oh was my mother upset.  I wasn't there but I can imagine.  My mother always tried so hard to cover up her feelings of inferiority.  Having an alcoholic Norwegian at her table for Thanksgiving was not acceptable.  I never remember seeing my parents fight, but I do remember long silences and icy stares.  I imagine that was a very quiet meal.  I imagine the next day there were words and icy stares.

My father persisted.  The man enjoyed a good meal, perhaps with the grapefruit appetizers I mentioned yesterday.  That Sunday found the man in church with my father.  My father gave him a suit.  I am sure that it was a sacrifice for my dad.  Money came hard on a janitor salary.  Fine attire and suits were necessary to worship in those days.

The man came to faith.  The man gave up drinking.  The man got up and testified in broken English that if it hadn't been for Brother Johannesen, he didn't know where he'd be.  After finding a new life in his new suit, the man died.  I don't know what he died of, my brother didn't say.  He died within six months of that Thanksgiving Day in Sunset Park.  He died at peace, with a church family to mourn his passing, dressed for burial in a hand-me-down suit, all because a man took a walk and saw beyond appearance, smell and misfortune.

I am reminded of the movie Blind Side with Sandra Bullock.  It was a blockbuster at the movie theater but how few of us are like my dad and the woman in the movie seeing with eyes that truly see the worth of another.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving in Brooklyn

When I was a little girl it seemed my mother had been up all night.  As soon as my eyes opened, and my nose awoke, the smell of turkey would fill my senses.  My mother was not a great cook, but she could do Thanksgiving very well. 

As soon as I had a bowl of oatmeal to stick to my ribs and keep me warm, my father would tell my mother to dress me warmly.  I would don a hat and scarf and leggings.  No they were not the footless tights we now call leggings.  These heavy wool leggings matched my coat.  They were held up by suspenders.  I routinely wore suspenders as a little girl.  Now that I think about that, it seems odd.  At the time, it didn’t.  They must have weight 10 pounds but they were necessary to keep my legs warm.  If there was snow on the ground, I would also put on my galoshes with the buckles on the side.

With my hand in my dad’s, I’d walk down 53rd street to 4th avenue.  In front of Johnny’s candy store, was the entrance to the subway.  Token in hand, we’d turn the turnstile.  Sometimes my dad would tell me to just go under it.  I did. 

It was always an adventure to go down the stairs of the subway with my dad.  It meant a trip to a museum or to the zoo.  I loved going anywhere with my dad.  This time, we were on our way to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  We’d find our place behind a police barricade.  While others were forced to stay behind the barricade, I would sit on the curb with my feet in the street – I was not behind the barricade.  Somehow that felt like I had an advantage.

I was so excited for the parade to start.  I loved the marching bands and the colorful floats.  I would watch the giant balloons come around a corner, first Snoopy, and then Mighty Mouse and of course the giant turkey.  But I was waiting for Santa.  I believed in Santa.  But I also believed that the only true Santa was the one at Macy’s.  The other Santa were fake.  Those bell ringing Santa, three to a block, were fake.  But Macy’s Santa? He was the real deal.  I waited impatiently for my first glimpse of Santa.

Then the band would turn the corner playing Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.  I couldn’t sit on the curb any longer.  I would jump up so excited for that first glimpse of Santa.  There he was, like a king on a throne.  The microphone to his mouth broadcast the names of the children he was going to visit with Christmas delights.  He said it.  He said JOYCE.  I heard him.  I was blessed.  I was special.  Santa knew I was there. 

The trip home on the subway seemed so quick.  I could hardly wait to tell my mother about Santa.  I would dream for weeks about his coming on Christmas Eve.  As other children waited for Christmas morning, Santa came early to our house since we were Norwegian.  

My mother had worked her magic.  Our table in that very humble railroad flat looked like something out of a magazine.  It was the only time of the year we had an appetizer.  Usually it was grapefruit.  She would scoop out the sections, sugar them, and flute the sides of the peel to make a cup for the fruit.  The fruit would go into the cups made from the peel, sprinkled with brown sugar, it would go into the oven.  A cherry would grace the middle.

Missing the fluted sides but you get the idea.
The feast was served on her "fine china."  The fine china was a free premium when my parents bought their first television set.  The dishes were trimmed in 14 caret gold.  Usually the amber salad set they'd received as a wedding present also graced the table.

Christmas seemed so far away and yet I knew it would be special.  Santa had seen me on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.  Among all the tall buildings, he knew I was there.  Turkey consumed, it was time to watch the black and white rerun of Miracle on 34th Street.  I’d already had my Macy’s miracle.  It was going to be a wonderful Christmas.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I Can Do It

I’ve been thinking about my strange life.  I wrote a blog last summer reflecting on all the “famous” and “notable” people I’ve met throughout my life.  I was sitting next to the guy that inspired that blog by saying he’d met Ronald Reagan.  You can read about all these people here.

Yesterday in class our professor mentioned The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.  It was interesting to watch the clueless look come across most of the faces of my class mates.  Made me realize how old I am.  He mentioned it because one of the women in the class is looking at gender bias in higher education.  I had just talked with her about it during the “mixer” exercise that started the class.  I mentioned how I thought it was so odd that when we as a cohort had our chance to elect class leaders there was not one female name nominated with enough support to be on the first ballot.

Interestingly, two men are now arranging lunches for us and in charge of communication.  Even if you are gender biased, stereotypically, this would be a better job for a female.  But you put LEADER in the word and poof – men are nominated.  When they announced who the leader was of my half of the cohort I had to quickly run to Facebook to see who he was.  He hadn’t stood out to me in anyway.  He’s a nice guy and did good with getting us pizzas last month.  This month, it was delegated to a woman and so it will be next month.  Interesting… Oh well, as long as I get lunch, I really don’t care.  But I sure did notice that these educated individuals still thought a man was better to be a leader.

Then there was this interesting comment by another of the younger ones in the class.  We were discussing inclusive language and the use of the generic “he.”  She said, “If I am not insecure about my femininity, can I use the “he?”  The professor correctly said, NO, you can’t.  This professor was a female, and I wish she had gone further with her answer. But she was relatively young too. She should have told our young sister that she has no idea how important those changes are to some of us. I wanted to tell her that inclusive language is huge.  And we still have so far to go.  Women's rights are a luxury in most of the world.

I sat next to Betty Friedan one time.  We actually had a conversation.  We were both delegates to the White House Conference on Aging in 1995.  She probably did get to see the president up close and personal.  I didn’t.  Nevertheless, there we were in a work session to discuss quality of life and end-of-life decisions.  She was well known.  I wasn’t.  However, I guess I looked like I’d make a good recorder.  I was the young one in the room that time.  It was Ms. Friedan herself who said, I think Joyce should be our recorder.  She patted me on the leg and smiled. 

This time her cause wasn’t women’s rights but the right to die.  No she was not in favor of assisted suicide.  In fact, she was quite the opposite.  She remembered the holocaust.  She was Jewish.  She feared all our talk of dying with dignity might be pseudonyms for let’s kill off the old folk.  As a group, we careful crafted language to be the official recommendations and guides for the future of aging services. 

As I looked at my cohort mates, particularly the female ones, I thought we really need to remember who Betty Friedan was and we aren’t done with the cause.  I am facing both of the causes that Ms. Friedan had in her life.  I am facing sexism and now ageism.  I’m extremely well qualified to do a lot of things.  I’m bright.  I’m articulate.  I have vast experience.  I am creative.  I am energetic.  I am visionary.  No I’m not on an ego trip.  It is the truth.  I have so much to offer and yet I can’t get an interview.  No one has a place for me. 
It might be easy to blame it on the bad economy.  I am sure that is a factor.  But let me ask you, where do you see older people working?  They’re greeting you at Wal-Mart and serving you burgers at McD’s.  I’m immersed in a doctoral program right now and my biggest fear is that when I am done, I’ll be wearing a Wal-Mart or McD’s uniform to support myself in my old age.  However, as I think about that and as I think of Betty Friedan who at 74 was still fighting, I think it’s time to start raising a fight of my own. 

Yesterday I was in Big Lots.  The line was long and there were only one person checking.  A woman came behind me and said, is this the line?  I said yes.  In a very loud voice she said “YOU NEED TO OPEN SOME MORE REGISTERS.”  Guess what?  They did.  Within one minute, three lines were open.  We all were thankful to that woman’s big mouth.  I think it is time for Joyce to find her big mouth again.  I’m not done.  I have too much to offer to leave this world an old woman.  

I guess this isn’t the most devotional thought for a Sunday morning but it is inspiring to me.  I’m not done with my contribution.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Silver or Gold

If you were ever in Girl Scouts or a similar type of group, you may know this song.

Make new friends but keep the old
One is silver and the other gold

I wasn’t in Girl Scouts but I learned this song in Sunbeams at my local Salvation Army Corp.  I thought it was a cute song.  I wondered which one was silver and which one was gold.  It seemed the new friend was silver and the old gold but I’d still wonder about it.  I was sort of a weird kid like that.

I’ve been thinking about friends a lot lately.  People talk about Facebook friends and how many people have.  They say these folks aren’t really friends.  I’ve gotten so caught up in this discussion I’m working on a dissertation on Facebook, community and Christian development.  I do think about this stuff a lot.

Last week in preparation for a two day journey south, I thought about who I should visit with in Columbia Missouri.  Columbia Missouri is home.  It’s not home in the same way that Brooklyn is home.  I spent my childhood in Brooklyn but so much else of my life is grounded in the capital of Boone County.  My parents are buried here.  I’ve told my husband that when I die, he should take me home to Columbia. 

There are lots of phases to my life in Columbia.  There is the Hickman phase, short and not memorable.  There is the First Assembly phase – relatively short and VERY memorable.  I made some friendships there that are golden and who have been renewed in recent years because of Facebook and email.  There was the marriage phase to my first husband, the years of abuse and living on welfare.  There was the MU phase when I was a college student with three children.  There was the divorce and then wonderful new love.  There was the Christian Chapel phase and the Christian Fellowship phase.  I’m a walking encyclopedia of the first days of those two churches.  When I finally write the book of my life, it will be filled with Columbia Missouri phases.

I was turned down by a couple of friends.  Decided not to ask a couple more because I get my feelings hurt easily.  One of the friends that turned me down is a very dear friend who I feel like I’ve known all my life.  Miraculously through all our moves and trials we always stayed in touch.  That really hurt my feelings when she turned me down.  The other one was busy.

A wonderful new/old friend has come back in my life.  It seems she always has time for me.  After years and years of not knowing anything about each other, our bond of friendship re-cemented again.  I love long chats with her whether on Skype, email and best of all in person.  I love being able to see the expression on her face.  She has patience with me when I jabber on and on like we did last night over pasta.

Today I’m finding another old friend.  The turn-downs of others pushed me to think harder.  I just can’t see driving all this distance and not connecting.  Today I’m having lunch in St. Louis with someone who I knew in the Christian Chapel phase.  I am sure it has been over 30 years.  She not only remembered me but she wanted to see me.  That’s awesome!

I’m also thinking today of some of my very newest friends.  Yes, I have finally made some attachments in South Dakota.  I think of the wonderful friend I have non-coffee chats with in Brookings.  I think of the wonderful women of Grandview Covenant.  I love them so much and their warm welcome has taken much of the chill off of South Dakota. 

And then there are my very oldest friends.  Recently a childhood friend has become my brother.  He's encouraged me and supported me.  I feel so blessed he's in my life.  Who knew when he teased me as a child that one day like a brother, he'd step back into my life.  When my mother died, my biological brothers left me and severed all familial ties.  I make up my extended family now with a few in-laws and pseudo siblings.  A cousin who I hardly knew as a child is now my other dear brother.  My step siblings round out the family tree.

My oldest BFF told me from her house in Georgia that she was sending prayers for me as I traveled.  I could mention so many people...I'm now afraid the one I didn't will get their feelings hurt.  I love my friends so much and appreciate them.

I’m thinking friends are precious.  I’m thinking that whether they are new or old, silver or gold, they are one of the greatest gifts in my life.  I’m planning on lots of connecting in TN as well.  I am so excited because one of my cohort mates at school actually asked me to spend time with her.  Much of the time at school I feel rather lonely, so that was great!  Mixed with old friends who want to see me and new friends I probably will be out for lunch every day… I just wish that I could also sit down with the dearest of friend(s) I have in Connecticut and New England as well.  But that day will come.  Until then, I think of them daily and miss them.

Do you have precious friends?  Treat them right and if they call you and ask you to go to lunch or supper or breakfast – SAY YES.  Especially if it is me J

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who Needs You?

I was asked interesting questions today. Actually it was more of a comment than a question. It was the question that rose up in me that was more where the question part from. I have a friend. She is not religious. She is a good person. That is not to be read “she is not religious but a good person.” It is just what it says. She is a good person. She is not religious. Being a good person and being religious are no synonymous with each other. I know a lot of religious people that I don’t care to be around.

My friend was telling me about her friend; a friend who lost nearly everything in the Nashville flood of May 2010. Since then the friend’s disabled spouse has had a heart attack, had adult child with spouse and four small children move in with her and yesterday, the father of those small children was killed because he tried to check a tire on her car. The jack didn’t hold and the car crushed him. She blames herself. Four children are orphaned. How much more can this woman bear?

The street near this woman's house after the flooding in Nashville in May 2010.

As we talked I found out that a group of volunteers who were helping with flood recovery knew about her situation with her destroyed house. However, they sent no volunteers to her because – she wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t one of what? How do we decide those things? How do we decide someone is “one of us?”

Then I found out the woman went to church. So I asked the reasonable question. Didn’t her church help her with the flood recovery? I also learned that since the woman is the sole provider in this family they don’t have much financially. I found out that no, they hadn’t. No one had come to her assistance from her own church family. This woman is religious – does that mean maybe she is religious but not good? Or that she is religious but just doesn’t belong to the right group?

Brookings Flood September 2010

As we talked I relayed a situation I had heard about in Brookings, where I live now. Brookings got flooded last week. Many people lost their homes and transportation. Like the woman in Tennessee, these folk didn’t seem to be the ones with the money. They definitely didn’t have flood insurance. Their mobile homes and cars sat in water. My friend asked me why it is that those already at somewhat of a disadvantage always seem to be the ones that get the floods and disasters. That’s a really good question. I don’t know the answer to that one and wouldn’t even pretend to be so spiritual as to make one up.

Seems there are an Iraqi immigrant and his wife and small children who lived in the flooded waters of Brookings. The Iraqi immigrant translated for our military personnel before immigrating for fear of his life. Seems to me he’s a patriot. Now he’s lost what little he had in this flood. His youngest child is a few weeks old. Another friend, yes I have one or two in Brookings, said she was going to help them. I said count me in. Then my Brookings friend, can you imagine being an Iraqi Muslim around hostile Christians and then lose everything. Now she’s a good follower of Jesus Christ. She’s not necessarily religious. She is a good person.

So the question I am asking today is where is the church? Where are those of us who name the name of Jesus and say we follow Him? Is this Iraqi our neighbor? It sounds a lot like the story of the Good Samaritan to me. Then there is this good church going woman in Tennessee. Where is her church family? I told the congregation that I was preaching to on Sunday, caring for each other is very close to the heart of God? Who needs you?

Matthew 25:34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. 35 And here's why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, 36 I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37 "Then those 'sheep' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? 38 And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' 39 40 Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me - you did it to me.' 41 "Then he will turn to the 'goats,' the ones on his left, and say, 'Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. 42 And why? Because - I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, Sick and in prison, and you never visited.' 44 "Then those 'goats' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn't help?' 45 "He will answer them, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me - you failed to do it to me.' 46 "Then those 'goats' will be herded to their eternal doom, but the 'sheep' to their eternal reward."

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Now I'm Burning.

I am fired up. I haven’t been this fired up about anything really important in a long time. While in some ways to have my passions stirred is a good time. I haven’t hidden the fact that I’ve been terribly depressed for a long time. But on several levels I am not sure I like being stirred up. 

First I wish this issue would go away. I wish Dr. Jones and now this Pastor in Springfield TN would just come to their senses, repent and not burn anything this weekend. Second, I fear that I will be misunderstood, lose friends which are valuable to me and maybe even vilified.  As I said yesterday, I am much more the Kumbaya, get along type person.

I feel a real sense of grief in my spirit. After I wrote my blog yesterday, I saw the post from a Pastor in Pakistan. I could feel the pain in his words. He was begging for us, his brothers and sisters in the west to do what we could to stop the burning of Qur’ans. He posted a picture of a burned house in Pakistan. I know religious militants are not right and need to be stopped, etc. But you know what? They exist. Christianity has produced quite a few of them as well. Look no further than Dr. Jones.

It is easy for us, sitting in freedom to say things like well, they don’t have churches in Saudi Arabia. That’s right they don’t. Thank God we live in America where we have the freedom to build churches, or temples, or synagogues or even mosques. We don’t want to be Saudia Arabia. We love to talk about the godly heritage of our country, our “Christian” roots. It is because of those foundations that we have freedom of religion.

When we hate, when we respond with hatred, are we any different? Someone said they wanted fairness. They said they wanted the President and others to react just as strongly when Bibles are burned as they are to this Qur’an burning. I think it is to our credit that we don’t react. Not that I want to see a Bible burned. That’s a terrible thing as well. But we understand that when someone does that, our response should be to pray for them. It should be separate their actions and see it as their problem. The reason we can do that is we know freedom. Not only the freedom of knowing Christ but also because we live in a country of freedom.

I saw a clip of a pastor and an imam from Memphis who are respecting each other. The pastor said that he is told in his Bible to love his neighbor. These Muslims are now his neighbor. So he is doing what the scripture says. Is that in your Bible too? It is in mine.

These two reminded me of the powerful video I saw a few years ago, The Imam and the Pastor.  You can see a clip on youtube of part of it here. Two Nigerians, one a Pentecostal preacher, the other a Muslim Imam work for peace. Seems that would be a very godly thing to do, at least to me it does?

I don't think this fire is going to go away. I wish it would. I wish I didn't feel compelled to speak up, but I do. I can't ignore it.

Listen to the words of Jesus:
Matthew 5:38 "Here's another old saying that deserves a second look: 'Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.' 39 Is that going to get us anywhere? Here's what I propose: 'Don't hit back at all.' If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. 40 If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. 41 And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. 42 No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.43 "You're familiar with the old written law, 'Love your friend,' and its unwritten companion, 'Hate your enemy.' 44 I'm challenging that. I'm telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, 45 for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best - the sun to warm and the rain to nourish - to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. 46 If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. 47 If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. 48 "In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
We really don’t need Patraeus or the President to be telling us that this Qur’an burning is wrong. Our Master and Savior told us this a long time ago.  I am a Christ-follower. I want to behave like one. I also want our brothers and sisters around the world to be safe. I also believe in the scripture that says we are all one body and when one hurts, we all hurt.
1 Corinthians 12:25 The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don't, 26 the parts we see and the parts we don't. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. 27 You are Christ's body - that's who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your "part" mean anything.