Little Boy Found:

My father at 4 years old

I love the hidden stories implicit in a found object– an “objet trouvé,” as the French would say. (And everything sounds better in French.) The beauty of found objects lies partially in them being so full of possibility, but also in what they teach us of empathy when we try to place ourselves in their story. In Bruges, I once found a small photo of a young man; it was precariously sat on a windowsill I passed by. I didn’t dare move it– perhaps it was left for the occupant on the other side of the window? Or perhaps the object of his affection had tossed it aside as she walked down the street, and it landed on this perch. Perhaps it had accidentally been dropped and another passerby had picked it up from the street, moving it where it might be found again, thinking somewhere, someone in town was looking frantically to find it. I left the photo, imagining that the story was still in play.

Or there’s the Grateful Dead songbook I stumbled on at a used book store, only to have a personal note fall out at my feet: “Jan. 1987. To Grace, with love, Krissy. When you’re older and wiser and living in Paris, I hope you’ll never forget our great times and the Grateful Dead. Welcome home!” I found this youthful time capsule for sale for a few dollars in the suburbs of DC in 2018. I hope that Grace is living in Paris and loving life. I hope this memento was only discarded because she travels light and keeps on truckin’, not because she’s lost touch with those great times and her friend Krissy. But who knows?

Another time, I found a tiny Bible in the £1 box at a British antique fair. I opened it up to find an amazing soldier’s story inside. But that lovely story should wait for its own post someday. Today, I have something else to talk about. The found object is my father. At four years old. Living in a small mill house in NC in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

I knew my father very well and loved him even better. I thought, foolishly, that I knew the book of his life. That I could pick it up off the bookshelf without having notes fall out and catch me by surprise. Moments of youthful joy, or family struggle, or any of the thousands of days and hundreds of thousands of hours that were his story and not mine, despite the tight weave of family that we share. To love someone well is to know them in a way that you feel their presence deep in your bones. But that doesn’t mean you know all the frames of their story, and it is an exquisite and poignant experience when these notes fall out of their book and land at your feet. It’s a gift that reawakens wonder and empathy. But I ramble on.

My dad and his younger brother, Larry. I’m not sure his age here, but I’d guess 6-7.

Pardon me. I’ll slow down and tell you about this found object.

A few weeks ago, I was walking a very particular path: the one year anniversary of my father’s death. A path by turns beautiful and rough; a week about enduring memory and love, as well as the sting of loss.

A very mundane thing happened that week. Ancestry.com emailed me that my DNA/origins information had been updated. It happens with some regularity. (And to my dismay, it always draws my regional circle tighter and never suddenly tells me: “Girl, we just found a Russian Tsaress/Egyptian pharaoh/Amazonian princess in your background!” Nope, I’m entirely Western European and mostly English, Scottish, Irish. In fact, I’m so Scottish that it’s baffling my hair isn’t flame-red. On the other hand, I’m no longer perplexed that my mother eats oats for breakfast every morning. Every. Single. Morning. She can’t help it– it’s in her DNA, apparently.) But I digress– which is easy to do in the mundane moments of your story.

I opened this ancestry update to find that I am still the most White Anglo-Saxon Protestant woman on the planet. I suppose the marketing team at Ancestry.com realized that this was not terribly exciting news, and they couldn’t automatically count on me rushing to purchase their services to learn more. They would have to pitch something specific of interest: my grandfather’s WWII draft registration card and a page from the 1940 census. For a small fee.

I already know my family history. I have pages and pages of names, dates, locations. I know who did the begetting and who was begat. But this meaningful coincidence– a small platter of tasty family morsels as I walked a week hungry with loss and heavy with my father’s spirit– this, I could not ignore.

Besides which, I’m a savvy researcher and was pretty sure I could find these documents online without paying the asking price. (Damn, there’s my Scottish frugality peeking through!)

So now we return to the beginning of this post- the place of found objects and enchanted spaces. The place where I find my father at 4 years old.

The 1940 census.

I opened the document and it was like opening the wardrobe door into Narnia. I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. There was this family that I know, but don’t know. My grandfather at 30. (He would be dead 9 years later.) My grandmother as a young mother to three boys, ranging from 4 down to less than a year. And those three boys– that happy few, that band of brothers, who joked and jostled and supported each other throughout their lives. Three tiny boys who dug tiny trenches in the backyard during WWII, believing that any minute Japanese Zeroes would swarm the sky over their small NC town and they’d have to take cover. Who dearly loved a little boy dog they misguidedly named Daisy. And who could never agree on which of them set off the cherry bombs inside the house. (Although they were all quite sure that the culprit had tried to throw them out the window, but missed.) That naughty and noble band of brothers is, today, reduced to a band of one.

But in the 1940 census, they are alive and well, in the first years of their journey and living in a rented house along with their parents and a lodger–their father’s Aunt Mattie.

I haven’t encountered Mattie before. Who is this Aunt Mattie, I wonder? And where is this house, exactly? I turn back to the internet to find it. To see where these people I love, but somehow don’t know at all, are living.

Google Earth street view- the home where
my father lived in 1940

I find the house. It’s still standing today, unchanged on the outside. It’s a small mill house built in 1915. Two bedrooms for these three adults and three children.

The 1930’s were lean and mean years, and The Great Depression had not spared this community. Farmers scraped by. The mills spluttered and many closed their doors, selling off the mill houses. Dinner tables didn’t groan under the weight of hearty helpings. And people worked hard to simply stay afloat. I’d always believed that my parents grew up after this wave of hardship broke. That they were touched by those years, but not burdened. But peering into this small house, I wondered.

And so I turned back to the faded lines of the 1940 census and found information about my grandparents’ employment.

In 1940, my grandfather was working 70 hours a week as a cafe operator. My grandmother, who was college educated and was a teacher before having children (and again after my grandfather’s death), was working 40 hours a week as a seamstress in a cloth mill. This surprised me. In 1940, most women gave up work after getting married and having children — that was the expectation until the war effort really cranked up. If my grandmother was back at work with three tiny tots at home, and working in a job none of us ever heard her talk about later . . .this felt like hard times. And Aunt Mattie, whom I had guessed was there to help with the young children? Now I see that she was also working 40 hours a week, inspecting cloth in the mill. It seems that they were working mighty hard just to get by.

I know what they don’t know yet- that 1940 is the cusp where lean times begin the turn to boom times. But the price is another world war. I know that these three boys will grow up to be fine men, but I know also that personal tragedy and plenty of struggle will color their decade ahead. In this moment, I want so badly to actually reach out and touch them. To sit and talk. To just watch them and learn who they are, and how they are– these people I know but don’t know.

What a gift, this of all weeks, to stand in the doorway of this humble house, seeing the band of brothers, admiring my young grandmother, and trying to conjure the grandfather and great-great aunt that I never knew. I feel a strange mix of pride and sorrow. Proud of the determination and hard work of a family that will go on to raise three amazing men. Sorrow for the hardships and heartbreak I know will continue to touch this family in the years ahead.

I also feel wonder, and a little pain, that there is so much more I could learn about my father, so much more his life can teach me . . . but so much I am sure to never know.

It feels like a gift, this 1940 census. Like a magic portal. Like a little nudge from the universe, a whispered secret. A found object here, an old document there. A window into the lives we know intimately and not at all.

My father at 4 years old.

Battle of Britain Day, 2019

Today, September 15, is Battle of Britain Day, marking the date in 1940 when the German Luftwaffe launched an enormous attack on London and South East England, but the Royal Air Force pushed back victorious and turned the tides in the larger “Battle of Britain”- a nearly 4 month long campaign.

I know this, not because I am a WWII fanatic.  I know this because it streamed across my computer this morning.  The universe handed me this nugget not so much as a random byte of information, it seems to me, but as a beautiful gesture of syncronicity, an acknowledgment of battles we face.

My parents grew up during WWII.  They took form, in character and outlook, from the struggles and victories of that era.  If their lives have a soundtrack, it is generously sprinkled with Big Band music,  Ella Fitzgerald, and the tappity-tap-tap of my mother tap dancing her way through a recording of “The Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy from Company B.”  It may not be my generation’s music, but I do find that my heart swells when I hear it because it so pulses through the veins of my parents in their youthful moments.

It will come as no surprise that my dad has always been a student of WWII era aircraft.  He indulged that love of Spitfires and Corsairs, poured over books about them and history magazines that featured WWII battles, and built model airplanes with my brother when we were young.

I observed this and, although I never shared the obsession or built the model airplanes, I loved his love of the history and of the forms of flight and defenders of freedom that these metal birds represented.  Because I love my dad.

There was one way in which my dad and I shared his love of WWII history and aircraft, and I suspect he doesn’t know this.  In fact, I never thought about it until this week– it’s one of those memories of childhood that doesn’t get fully processed until some time later in life. It’s like a shiny pebble you pick up and put in your treasure box as a child, just because it delights you.  Years later, you open the box to have a nostalgic look at those simple prizes of childhood, only to realize that you have pocketed a gold nugget.

This is one of those nuggets:

The church system was older than this, but this gives you an idea of what it looked like.

In the 1970’s, my dad would often man the P.A. (public address) system at our church on Sunday mornings.  The control board was a large metal tower of dials and toggle switches that had to be monitored for volume and switched at the right moment, to turn on and off microphones that were placed around the sanctuary. Was someone reading a lesson from the lecturn? Was the minister stepping up to the pulpit to deliver a long and learned sermon?  Wherever the action was, there the microphone should be turned on.  Wherever the action wasn’t, it should be shut off to avoid buzz and background noise.

The fellow in the pulpit may have the figurative spotlight for a speech, but if the PA system wasn’t properly aligned, the whole morning fizzled.

Manning the PA system was important, but it wasn’t exciting.  You sat in a small room behind the sanctuary, armed with a church bulletin and notes on where each “act” of the service would take place.  You stared at a large metal tower set into a recess of the wall, and you navigated the service while you listened in on the giant aviator-style headphones that were provided. 

Yes indeed, you navigated the service in your aviator headphones.  So it seemed to me.  You see, my dad would occasionally let me join him when he manned the PA system.  From his perspective, it was probably just a chance to spend a little more time with his children.  Or maybe he knew my fascination with aviator headphones.  Either way, on the rare occassion, I was his co-pilot in this cockpit.

When I was lucky enough to join my dad, it was a big deal to me. I liked the headphones, and I marveled at the dials and switches, while sitting on a metal chair with my feet dangling above the ground.  If I fidgeted and squirmed, it was only between moments of staring, enrapt, at the towering cockpit and keeping an eye on my dad’s deft piloting of the apparatus.

I wasn’t old enough to see it then– I loved the experience, but wasn’t self-aware enough to know why.  Today, it is crystal clear to me.  In these moments, I was flying a Spitfire over the skies of London.  I was piloting a Corsair over the English Channel.  I was a green co-pilot to my dad’s flying ace, and I loved every moment.  Sure, we got off easy: when Dr. Joe Mullin stepped to the pulpit for a long sermon, we’d flip on his mic, then leave our post and scramble down to the kitchen for donuts.  But we’d always be back in place before Joe finished, and we’d fly that service back into a safe and smooth landing before shutting down the cockpit and hanging up our headphones for the day.

We were a great aviatorial team, my dad and me.  The best.

So today we honor those brave souls who fought The Battle of Britain, and my dad is still the best pilot any co-pilot could have.  He’s fighting his own battle with cancer now.  It’s very difficult and grueling.  Some days, it’s just a wing and a prayer.  But no matter that– today is a day to lift up the brave, and, although my dad was just a school boy at the time, he’s my favorite WWII hero.

I love you, Dad!

 

 

Voices in the Graveyard: Zelda and Scott

DSC_0920

What allows some people to escape their demons while others can’t shake them off?  What mad inertia drives some, demonstrably resilient, people straight over cliffs to their destruction?  I guess there are thousands, millions of individual answers to that question.   I had a moment with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald the other week, wondering if they might whisper something, inspire some insight, as I stood by their grave with a meager offering of flowers.  Wondering how things went so terribly wrong this side of paradise (although some of the answers to that question are blatant), but also wondering if things look remarkably different (and if there was any wisdom that they could share) from the other side of paradise.

I was met with little more than a cold March breeze and silence, but for the low hum of the roadside just beyond the graveyard.

Until . . . I turned my back to leave and a swirl of snow flurries began to fall.  Not forecast, not expected, and not entirely welcome in March, but altogether beautiful.  And this was my farewell from the Fitzgeralds.  They were a puzzle to the end– and even beyond– but, by God, they had style.  And it seems they have it still.

DSC_0919

The stone at the foot of the grave, engraved with what is likely Fitzgerald’s most famous passage, from the end of The Great Gatsby. 

A few more notes on the gravesite, the Fitzgeralds, and my visit:

DSC_0917 Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church,  Rockville, MD: a very old church around which a modern sprawl has grown.   The graveyard sits atop a busy intersection– a major artery in the morning commute into DC.  Despite that, it feels quiet and respectful.  The Fitzgerald headstones are set back from the road, close to the old church building, so they enjoy one of the more serene spots in the cemetery.

And “serene” well describes the moment I lingered over this gravesite– if it doesn’t describe the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the least.  Their lives were too often consumed by mania– in Zelda’s emotional state, in Scott’s unquenchable thirst for alcohol– but their final resting place is peaceful.   Its background music may be the rumble of the road and the back-and-forth and here-and-there frantic energy of the ambitious, but this small plot seemed impervious.  I paused a moment on a Friday morning, I placed my flowers and bowed my head briefly, and I raised my head again to find that snow flurries had appeared out of nowhere.  Within minutes, the sky grew heavy and the swirl picked up.

 

I moved on, eager to make use of the free morning I had, wary of what unforeseen storm might be blowing in to disrupt my plans, but also delighted at the beauty of the unexpected swirl and sudden cold.  I jumped in my car and headed out into the Rockville Pike traffic, a boat against the current, but moving nonetheless.

boatsagainstcurrent

 

Sunday on Rose Street

Edinburgh, 2018

Rose Street, in Edinburgh’s New Town, is not particularly new.  New Town dates back to the reign of George III, which is an era many of you know for the American Revolution. In comparison to the Old Town of Edinburgh–a snarl of alleys and ginnels, a mess of hills and ridges– this New Town is bold and orderly in layout.

Layout of Edinburgh’s New Town

But orderly facades are always facades, and architectural symmetry always belies the messier lives there housed.  So consider New Town.  The main streets (Queen Street, George Street, and Princes Street) are wide and regal.  But tucked between are smaller streets– more like grand alleys– running through the blocks, like veins through flesh.  And here lies Rose Street.

Today, Rose Street is a pedestrian road peppered with bakeries, pubs, restaurants, and shops, but it still retains a “back alley” aura.  Not least because it has an outrageous number of pubs, and sometimes an outrageous number of people stumbling out of those pubs and weaving from wall to wall the length of the street.  All told, it’s reputation is generally respectable, if just a bit sodden, these days.  It’s cleaned up a bit from the red light reputation it had 60 years ago.  In fact, it’s home to many more-than-reputable restaurants — 1780 being one I can heartily vouch for.

I bring up Rose Street today, because I stumbled on the lead photo for this post the other day– a photo I took of some street art , part of a series on Rose Street.  It struck a chord, but I had no idea what the verses presented were all about.  Today, I sleuthed about the internet to find that they represent bits of a poem by Scotsman George Mackay Brown, who, as it happens, used to drink in a bar named Milne’s, sat on the corner of a street named Rose, running like a vein through the arm of New Town.

Bottoms Up, dear George!  Today I celebrate your poem, “Beachcomber,” and think about Edinburgh’s New Town, sat side by side with a very old town and perched on the edge of a cold North Sea, both harsh and beautiful.

Beachcomber

Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
Next winter
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.

Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.

Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.

Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.

Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.
What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins.

George Mackay Brown

Nibbling at the Edges of Eclipse Day: The Moon Bites Back

Everyone is talking about today’s solar eclipse.  It’ll draw its dark line diagonally across the US today, but the inky darkness will bleed out across most of the country– even those of us who aren’t in the line of total eclipse.  It’s been the big story for days now, leading a news cycle that has contained other chatter that included stories about North Korea and Russia: a big old stew of news that brought to mind two posts from a couple of years ago; posts about Moon Pies, Cold War, Russians, and North Korean politics.  Strange bedfellows, maybe . . . maybe not.  

Seemed an appropriate time to bring out that original post (Moon Pies and Moon Landings), as well as it’s follow up on the saga of Choco Pies in N. Korea.  Happy reading, bon appetit, and Godspeed on eclipse day!

 

Moon Pies and Moon Landings (Modern History and the German Grocery Store)

I began writing this post under the title “The Perks and Perils of Shopping Abroad.”  However, I soon realized that the insights you are about to read are much broader than my mishaps in the grocery aisles.

The larger story starts in the years after the Second World War.  (Or even after the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.)  It gains steam in the Cold War and the Race for Space.   However, the more immediate story starts in the aisles of my local German grocery store, Edeka.  And like the larger story of political machinations, it’s fraught with perks and perils.

For example, it was recently brought to my attention that the lovely, fragrant German laundry detergent I’ve been using for about three months is actually fabric softener.  Who knew?  Well, in fact, I had suspected for a few weeks.  My clothes were so fragrant and soft!  But were they clean?  Well . . . they weren’t not clean.

These things happen when you shop abroad.
But great things happen too.  This morning, I was meandering the aisles of our grocery store, picking up jam, sorting through coffee, and pondering fish, when I stumbled upon the most amazing thing on an Eastern European/Russian shelf.  Moon Pies!    Well, okay, Choco-Pies–but they were Russian Moon Pies!    Eureka!   For all of you non-American (or non-Southern) folks out there, here’s a little lesson:  Moon Pies are chocolate, graham, and marshmallow pies that are a Southern staple and made in Tennessee.  Before the markets were flooded with snack cakes and convenience food, there was the Moon Pie.  Apparently, they were produced beginning in the 1920’s and they were certainly big stuff in the sixties and seventies.  (My mother loved to pack my lunch with Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, but my heart, and my taste buds, yearned for Moon Pies.)   They were iconic.  And delicious.

And here I was, in Germany, staring down a Russian doppelganger!  At first I laughed, and then I greedily stuffed a box into my shopping cart!  I considered my good fortune as I walked the streets of town, heading home with my grocery bag and its treasure.  But as I walked, I started thinking about more than my good fortune.  I started thinking about the doppelganger-ness of the little chocolate pie: the shadowy counterpart, the ghostly (and ominous) double.  The American Pie/the Russian Pie:  forever locked in a shadowy dance.

For sure, I’ve watched too many episodes of “The Americans,” the Cold War spy drama, lately.  But my odd brain was playing out this Spy v. Spy (Pie v. Pie) drama  and finding it fascinating.

By the time I got home, I was mad to know more.  I ripped out the Choco Pie box and scanned the label for clues–amongst the Cyrillic  (Russian) script and German sticker stood out something I could decipher.  Original since 1974.  Ha!  It wasn’t the original then–we got there first.  Not only did we get to the moon first*, but we got to the moon pie first.  I chuckled as I opened the box and saw that the pies were smaller than their American counterpart.  Well, what did I expect.

But then I took a bite.  Oh my.  I took another bite.  They were delicious.  So fresh, so chocolaty.  I felt conflicted in my patriotic soul.  There had to be an explanation for this;  no way the shadowy double could rival the Southern staple.  Think, think!  (Take another bite.)  Think some more!   Oh–of course–the problem is that too many of the American Moon Pies I’ve eaten have been plucked from dusty lower shelves of rundown convenience stores or seedy Stuckey’s truck stops.  Who knows how long they had lingered there, gathering dust and grime?  That’s it.  That must be it.

Tang ad, 1966

I was raised in the 70’s with a taste for Moon Pies and Tang.   In my mind, that era will always be  about playing kick the can, catching fire flies, eating Moon Pies, and drinking Tang like the astronauts.  I remember some of the Apollo missions; I coveted the GI Joe astronaut dolls (Barbie never had the astronaut get up, although her house and pink convertible weren’t too shabby); and I marveled when Skylab sustained people and research in space.
I didn’t cheer on the Cold War or Nuclear Proliferation– they scared the hell out of me– but I was  a product of a culture and a time.   I didn’t know whether I was an observer or participant, but I felt the adrenaline of the Race.  The Race for Hearts and Minds, the Race for Space, for Superiority, for Survival.   And then I tucked my head down into a Moon Pie  or  Mad Magazine and took refuge from the noise of it all.

Only to find today that, maybe– just maybe– my youthful Soviet doppelganger was doing the same thing in 1974.
Only she couldn’t call her treat a “Moon Pie”. . . because we got there first.
Just another lesson learned at my German grocery store.

*Sort of.  We put a man on the moon first.  But before that, the  Soviet Sputnik program beat us into outer space and the Soviet Luna program reached the moon with unmanned crafts.

Time Magazine cover, Dec. 6, 1968

 

Update to “Moon Pies and Moon Landings” (first posted just a few days after the Moon Pie post)

This may come as a shock, but apparently my Moon Pie post was not as loopy as it sounded to many of you. Turns out Moon Pies (or Orion Choco-Pies, their Russian/Asian doppelganger) really are a propaganda piece in the machine of Cold War.  The present tensions between North and South Korea, that is.

My sister sent me a link to this very interesting article from The Daily Mail (UK)–looks like it was published today.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3119500/Chocs-away-North-Korea-unleashes-latest-weapon-against-rivals-South-counterfeit-Choco-Pie-cakes-rival-delicacy-available-border.html

The opening lines of John Hall’s article read like this:
*Chocs away! North Korea unleashes latest weapon against its rivals in the South – counterfeit Choco Pie cakes to rival delicacy available over the border
*North Korea has a roaring black market in the popular Choco Pie snack
Sweet treats change hands for £3.60 in Pyongyang, but only 17p in Seoul 
*So popular they are even used as alternative payment by some employers 
*But Kim Jong-Un is angry at the North’s love of a South Korean product 
He is now making his own Choco Pies in order to bring down their value 

Well, Mr. Kim Jong-Un, the joke is on you.  You are just putty in the hands of the universal Moon Pie awakening.