Old Photos: Why You Should Keep “Stuff”

 This year is the 40th anniversary of the Akron Women’s History Project (WHP), which started on my watch as the first director of the university’s women’s studies department. The university archivist and a former colleague, who apparently is part of the ongoing yearly event, expect me to remember the details of the WHP’s roots. I’m 80! Are they serious? I have to write myself notes to turn off the stove! 

However, since I only work part-time these days, I gave up watching my nightly Netflix series and started rummaging through file boxes and shelves to see what I could find. Not much, but far more than I predicted: photos of early organizers and award recipients; the first volume of the WPH annual booklet; my first speech at our first awards program; and several of the first awards (small porcelain figures sculpted by Sister Evangeline Doyle, a local Dominican nun).  

Awesome, I thought to myself—at least I have something to contribute. More awesome, however, were the other photos and memorabilia, including a 1924 obituary of my paternal grandfather, David Gozansky. According to the report, he died of a broken heart when his soldier son Joe died in France. There were baby pictures of my grandchildren and g-d children, all now teenagers and older. There was even a photo of one of my annual costume birthday parties in the 1940s, as well as one of my older brothers when they still had full heads of hair. I also found poems, letters, and a box of treasured books such as Catcher in the Rye, Shogun, a book on the philosophy of Hanna Arndt, and everything Tolkien. 

These bits and pieces help us remember and relive moments in our lives lost to time and memory. They are an antidote to old age, a reminder of a life well lived, and a connection to all those who have passed but are now reinstated in our hearts.  

Signs and Wonders

Signs and Wonders

A superstitious belief has the power to affect how people go about their
everyday lives and how they even go out of their way to protect or enhance
their future. Although Friday the 13th did not directly impact decision-making in one study, mood states were found to be significantly lower on Friday the 13th relative to moods on Friday the 20th.

Additionally, negative mood states significantly predicted safer decision-making on a
risky decision-making task. The finding suggested that Friday the 13th
may have had an indirect impact on decision-making. * Friday the 13th: How Superstitions, Luck and Mood Influence Decision Making. (https://minds.wisconsin.edu)

I don’t get on an airplane unless I’m wearing my ancient wooden Buddha and my gold hand of g-d. Actually, I don’t do anything risky unless I’m wearing my totems. I wasn’t always this way, but before I acquired my Buddha and Hamsa, I was firmly committed to ideas of karma, fate, premonition, and luck. It’s not that I don’t believe I can change the course of events, and even outcomes, but generally I believe my first instincts are my best instincts and derive from my preordained life story. Change course, change the story, and you change the outcome.

Last week, at 80, I was scheduled for a mini-face lift. I had been dickering about doing it for the past several years. I had three cosmetic surgeries in the past without giving it much thought—I wanted it more than I feared getting it. This time was different. I feared a negative consequence more than I wanted the potential enhancement. The possible cost was more than the benefit. But…I was going to do it. I put on my totems, went to the office for surgery, my blood pressure spiked, and I cancelled the procedure. The surgeon said that I could reschedule. I replied, “No.” I have great blood pressure. For me this was the sign.

Maybe finding classified documents in Biden’s home and office, compromising the Trump prosecution, will be Biden’s sign that he needs to withdraw from the 2024 presidential race. Unfortunately, Biden acknowledging this is like the starship in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy taking on the appearance of a large pink elephant at a cricket match. Because he can see it, yet it is so inconceivable to him, his mind can’t accept it. Therefore, ignoring it comes naturally.

President Biden, it’s a sign: time to move aside.

Revolution: the Photo and the Poem

First, I have to admit that I have no recollection of who wrote this poem. I found it over the New Year’s holiday while rummaging through a stack of old papers. It is, however, written about a large photograph that hung in my Women’s Studies office at the University of Akron and then again on the wall of my Criminal Justice office at Eastern Kentucky University. The portrait was part of an exhibition that we brought to the university for a Women’s History Month celebration of women artists sometime in the late 1980s. When I retired from academia in 2010, I gifted the photo to my former student assistant who had been my right hand, indeed my logistics coordinator, in the heady days of Women’s Studies. It now hangs in her living room. That is where it belongs.

She hangs by a nail in Carole’s office.

She is sitting on her haunches in a mud hut,

A thin hand holding up her head.

Her eyes are bright,

As though they see angels.

Her skin is the color of the earth

And the lines on her face

Are as complex as those on a leaf.

On her bony head she wears a head band.

It says: REVOLUTION.

How it got there, I don’t know,

But she wears it as naturally

As any queen ever wore a tiara.

On mornings when it seems meaningless to

Get out of bed.

On days when the world is a pair of dirty socks

I don’t want to get into,

She is my reason for continuing to breathe.

In my dreams, I see a revolution

Led by toothless grandmothers

From Peru and India and Poland,

Ringing in a new day, with their

Battered pots and pans.

I can hear them cackling with laughter

In between the cracks of rifles,

These good-natured generals

Who have left their kitchens and fields

To come save their children.

In my dreams, I see this

Glass planet snuggled safe in a pair

Of wizened brown hands,

Hands that once rocked cradles

And now rock the world, hands

That sprout tree saplings that cool

The feverish air, cover the ragged mountains

And coax this hurt and betrayed earth

Back into dancing.

For me, the most confounding part of not knowing the author is the dedication: For Carole, who dreams the same dreams. Boy, I wish I could remember who took the photo and, more personally, who wrote the poem.

When the Constitution Becomes a Nuisance

Imagine the shock to the Supreme Court justices—those staunch conservative protectors of the Constitution—when the last Republican president suggested that we abandon parts of it, especially the bits about elections. The majority of justices wants to preserve even the most outdated and patently dangerous sections in the name of strict interpretation of the founding document. That line of reasoning would still allow women to be beaten by their husbands and slaves to serve us tea.

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  If a constitutional amendment (the operable phrase, constitutional amendment) made it illegal to carry and/or sell military grade weapons, I would be very happy. I’d like one that allows and encourages strict background checks and makes it illegal to carry or store an unlicensed firearm. After all, we are living in the 21st century, and we have plenty of state and national militias for the country’s defense.

Nor would I be opposed to a constitutional amendment that modifies the Electoral College. Surely, there is a way to have a popularly elected government with some checks and balances to cover mob hysteria. After all, that was the original purpose of the Electoral College.

Of course, like anything else, what seems like a great idea to one group is an anathema to another, which is why we have to be careful tinkering with the old document. A solid working definition of reasonable might be a good place to start.

Given who is making this suggestion and his preferred method for change (i.e., Trump), I guess I’m thankful for Mr. Roberts and crew—well, maybe not Justice Thomas—for being opposed and appalled.

New Year 2023

Ukrainians face a cold and deadly winter. Headlines report a new Russian missile offensive against Ukrainian infrastructure that is needed to heat and light the already suffering resistance. To create such conditions is monstrous, ironic, and harsh—especially in the season of brotherly love. Clearly, Russia has lost its soul. But not just that single country.

In places like Syria and Lebanon, displaced families are experiencing frigid winter weather on top of what they are already facing—war, hunger, and COVID-19—as they have done for several years now.

Obviously, it is not just Russia that is soulless but ALL OF US. We are the cruelest of creatures, causing great suffering to peoples similar to or different from us—it doesn’t seem to matter. And, when we are not inflicting pain on people, we are busy destroying the planet, its vegetation, the climate, animals and, in so doing, ourselves.

As little children, we were considered “simple” if we wished for world peace. I was one of those simpletons, having been born in the midst of WWII and the Holocaust. I am now more serious and considered when I make my New Year’s wish: peace on earth, good will to all.

The Angels in Our Lives

I felt stomach punched. Not with physical pain, but with the kind of hurt you feel from fear and sudden grief. Metastatic liver cancer had its roots in an earlier bout with breast cancer. I don’t remember who told me; maybe it was Sister Libby herself. But I knew I had to make the drive from Kentucky to the Elms, a Catholic convent in Akron, Ohio. I had to see her and ask the question.

Sister Libby, a Dominican nun, had moved back to the Elms in the mid-1990s. A long-time Liberation Theologist, she had briefly lived in Cleveland to do community work among migrants when she contracted breast cancer. I visited her there, in between working in Cambodia, to thank her for keeping me on the Nun’s prayer line. More importantly, I wanted to thank her for affirming me, a Jew, for giving last rites to a Scottish pilot who died from  cerebral malaria in the jungle swamps of Cambodia.

This was not the first time that I had turned to Sister Libby for support. The convent, attached to a girl’s school, supported her activities in Akron’s flourishing women’s movement. She gave lectures in my Women Studies classes, supported our pro-choice coalitions, and took a leadership role in the local Women’s History Project. We were sisters in the struggle. When not supporting other women, she ministered to me through academic promotions, child rearing, and finally through my separation and divorce. I loved her.

I rang the bell outside the huge oak-paneled door of the convent, its deep sound echoing inside the old stone mansion. An elderly nun greeted me and asked me to wait in the vestibule. I marveled at the delicately carved, graceful mahogany paneling that covered the walls. Eventually, I heard footsteps on the stone floor, slow and deliberate. I turned to see Sister Libby, pale but smiling her greeting.

“Where would you like to go to dinner?” I asked. “Joe’s Steak House in the valley?” 

“My favorite,” she beamed ,embracing me in a warm hug.

We chatted about her return to the convent in Akron, the spread of her cancer, and her election to the presidency of her order. She still had a lot of unfinished work: setting up a hospital wing for aging nuns, recruiting new novices, and modernizing the convent. This cancer thing was not going to stop her. “A year is all I need,” she said as she finished off a large medium-rare ribeye steak. She seemed so robust, so full of life and her usual passion. She was going to die; I knew that. But not now—not tonight.

She pressed her warm hand on mine. “You said when you called that you needed to ask me something. What is it?”

Color and heat rose from my neck to my face, and suddenly I felt suddenly very ashamed. What I wanted was not for her, but for me. I wanted her to address my fears and questions about death. Sister Libby was the same age as my dearest friend and mentor, Faye Dambrot. I lost Faye, my senior by a decade, to lung cancer in early 2000, just before I relocated to Kentucky to start a new position as Chair of a university’s Criminal Justice Department. Her death had devastated me, and now I was facing the loss of another dear friend and ally. Almost whispering, I said, “I want to know whether you believe in an afterlife.”

Shaking her head, she smiled and replied softly, “I can’t think about that now. I will call for you when the time is closer, and I will tell you.”

“I’m sorry I asked. Forgive me?”

“No need, but for now I have work to do, and I must save my strength to get it done.”

I returned her to the convent. I listened to her even and quiet breathing as we drove onto the grounds and up the long driveway. I feared saying a last goodbye but, at the same time, I was calmed by her assurances and insistence that God would give her this year. So, we didn’t say goodbye; we hugged and said goodnight.

For most of the next year, I sent postcards of angels, poems, letters, and small gifts as often as I remembered—at least twice a month. Occasionally, I would get a short thank you note back, assuring me that her work was going well. Then the call came. Sister Libby’s gravelly and weak voice said, “Carole, now is the time for you to come.”

This time, Sister Libby was sitting in the vestibule when the nun answered the bells. One of the sisters helped me take her to the car. “Joe’s Steak House?” I asked as lightly as I could manage, trying to keep my voice from cracking.

She smiled weakly and nodded her assent. At the restaurant, she ordered a bowl of soup, dismissing my urges to try a steak.

“We don’t have to talk about this. I came to see you, not to find answers to my silly questions,” I said, stroking her trembling hands.

“Yes, we do. You want to know what I believe about life after death. I don’t believe in all that silly heaven stuff, like angels and harps. It’s called cosmology.” Stopping to cough and sip a little soup, she went on. “We are all connected to each other, to the earth, to all sentient living beings; after death, our life’s energy goes back into that stream of consciousness.” A sip of soup, and then a little chuckle. “I just hope I don’t become part of a tree and wind up as a piece of furniture.”

Wide eyed, looking at my frail friend, her mostly uneaten bowl of soup in front of her, I  felt enveloped by her love and affirmation. Cosmology, the connection of human consciousness, is what I believed but, until that moment, I had no name for it. All our times together flashed before me: teasing her about her orthopedic shoes, which I tauntingly called ‘nun-shoes’; her sitting at my Passover table, stunned that I put white bread on the Seder plate to signify the exclusion of women from Jewish tradition and ceremony. Libby was dying, and that was our last time together. The drive back to the Elms was silent, but her breathing was still steady, albeit weak. This time we embraced and said goodbye.

Sister Libby died the following month, on Christmas Eve. I later learned from the nuns that covering the walls of her tiny room were the postcards and pictures of angels that I had sent. My youngest granddaughter, Eliza Faye, is named for Sister Libby and for Faye. I hope some of their strength and goodness has passed to her, but more importantly, I know they are part of this world and the next.

Journal Entry: Work Smarter, Not Harder

HOW MANY APPLICANTS CAN WE REGISTER IN ONE DAY?

On the first day of voter registration in the market town of Skon, Cheong Prey District, Kampong Cham Provence, Cambodia, circa 1992, my team of locals worked hard and registered 398 people to vote in the United Nations-sponsored, first ever-democratic elections. On the next day, they worked even harder and registered 436 people! I heard from another electoral supervisor in a nearby district that their team registered about 360 people, so I believe that the record for the most registrations in one day was ours, Cheung Prey district! The competition between teams and districts bubbled up naturally among the local Khmer staff; as their supervisor, I basked in their success.

So, I was surprised when my interpreter, Meng, my right-hand man at the ripe old age of twenty, asked me, “Momma*, why don’t we work as hard as Sisters* Beatrice and Marylou? They leave before sunrise and return late in the evening after dark,” he said, backing up his claim of their hard work.

“They do, but have their district teams registered anywhere near as many people as we have? No!”  I let that sink in for a while. His face screwed up in the effort to arrive at an appropriate reason for the discrepancy between work and outcome.

 “Meng, my little friend, the secret is working smarter, not harder.” Meng cocked his head, squinted his already slanted eyes, breathed deeply, and said, “Yes, Momma. You are right.”

Thirty years later, Meng is a millionaire—self-made and proud. Every time we see each other, he reminds me that he works smart, not hard, and that he learned to do that from me.

I’m not a millionaire. What does that mean?

*Momma and Sister were how the locals addressed us foreign election workers. As the oldest, the only American, and someone with a PhD, the title of Momma went to me. Despite the lack of an official hierarchy among the electoral supervisors, even my UN colleagues seemed to defer to me.

Obituary

The average obituary is pretty standard and generally not very inspiring. People get a lot of credit for their progeny, dying while surrounded by family, and being a keen gardener. Alas, what can you say for those poor souls isolated and dying in hospital COVID wards?

A close friend’s mother recently passed, and she sent me a copy of the obituary that she wrote about her mom. It was lovely, as was her mother—but the real reason it was well written is that my friend is a writer with talent, something lacking in the average paid obituary writers. It seems that if you lack some sort of notoriety, good or bad, most likely you are destined to the standard obit.

I read her mother’s obituary and thanked her for sharing it. Shamelessly. I followed that up by requesting she write mine. (People in their eighties tend to think about such things.) Her response came soon after. “Thank you and not a chance! Way too many things to say about the life you lead and the influence you had on all around you.” Oh well, I sighed, and went on to think about happier things then constructing my obituary. 

Two days later, I got an email from my friend. In it, she said I should instruct my children to include the following line in whatever they write:

(She) is survived by an entire world of people whose lives she enriched through her endless fight for equality, thirst for discovery, and unwavering friendship.

I like it. I think I’ll print it off and attach it to my will so the family will be sure to find it. I’m not planning to die anytime soon but, when I do, I hope to be remembered like this.

The Queen of Excess: Staying at a Good Paris Address

I had planned to blog about my recent trip to France—too much cheese, pastries, baguettes, and chocolate truffles. But then, it would be what everyone writes about Paris, Bordeaux, and the like. If my arthritis medication didn’t make alcohol off limits, I could also describe the multi-reds of Bordeaux and the indomitable café drinkers braving cold and rain to huddle outside to smoke and vape with their too strong coffee or wine. lastly, I could write about mushroom hunting in Normandy, a very French thing to do…or best of all, write about my time with MeyMey* celebrating her birthday.

Instead, I’ll write about the fear permeating my European friends’ thoughts and fears. The polls and news from the USA predicted a red wave that would create a political tsunami. Trump was announcing a run for president in 2024, and everyone agreed that Biden was too old to hold back the tidal wave. I started to consider not returning home. I had voted early before leaving for France, but maybe I would indefinitely delay my return to the States.

My friends, all well-traveled, up to date on current events, and mature, had declared Western democracy dead and Ukraine unable to defend itself against Woland, (the devil from Master and Marguerite), aka Putin, if Trump gets back in office.

However, the election did not hand Trump and his cronies a landslide; in fact, anyone with sense would consider him irrelevant and treat him as such. Although I must say that a street-fight, smack-down between Republican wanna-bees is an interesting prospect—which I hope does not describe the Democrats upcoming campaign cycle. (Move aside President Biden; help mentor a new leader.)

So, I came home. I am back to work, back to boxing, back to voting (we have a run-off on December 6 in Georgia,) and back to trying to navigate being eighty.

*For more about MeyMey read A Pilgrim’s Journey in The Fourth Moment: Journeys From the Known to the Unknown

I Am Little and the Bear is Big

“Ovoo, Grandfather, I want to hunt a bear.”

“You are too young, and the bear is too dangerous.”

“No, Ovoo, I can do it. You take me to hunt the bear.”

Granddad shrugged, took a long pull off his pipe, and shook his head to indicate “yes.” Granddad was silent, rough, and stern. He was a widower, and my mum was widowed as well. He lived with us, and he often took charge of my training.

My grandfather and I set out into the hills and eventually entered a large cave. I heard a low grumbling sound before I saw it. The bear was asleep. I tugged at grandfather’s sleeve; I danced around as if I had to pee. “Let’s go,” I whispered, desperate to get away from the sleeping monster.

“But you wanted to hunt the bear. Here is the bear. We do not go.” “Please, granddad. I’m only little, and the bear is big.”

Grandfather waited, an eternity, I think, and finally turned toward the cave entrance and strode out, with me in his wake.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Putin left the Ukraine, but perhaps he thinks he is the bear. Then again, perhaps Zelenskyy is David.