Why am I here?

In her latter years, my mother used to ask that a lot.  I never knew what  to say, so I usually said something trite like “We still need you here.”  At which she would click her tongue against her teeth the way she did when I disagreed with her politics.

What was she asking, I wondered.  Did she still dream of unrealized ambitions in her nineties?   I always found the question unsettling and frankly, a little annoying.

But now that there are many more birthdays behind than before me, I think I get it.  I think she was reflecting over her long life and trying to make sense of it.  And I find myself doing the same.    What has my life meant?  At the finish line, will I be able to say I have   “fought the good fight” ?    Did I miss my “calling,” my high purpose?  The olympic swimmer,  the nuns of Calcutta, the Nobel Laureate, the musical prodigy;  they had a calling, didn’t they?  A custom made life-suit,  into which they fit perfectly.   Their one true path.  Is there one for me?

In my early life, I was sure of it.    My life would be exciting, full of high purpose, awe-inspiring.   Unlike my mother’s.  Especially, not like my mother’s.

Mind you, my mother  was not a slacker. She was a strong and intelligent woman; a school teacher, an avid reader, a seamstress and amazing gardener.   She make great chicken and dumplings and rhubarb pie. She survived two husbands and lived independently for 92+ of her 93 years.

But.  She never wrote a book, climbed a mountain, ran a corporation (or a marathon)  or held public office.  For most of her life she lived in the same community.  To my impatient, arrogant 18-year-old eyes, her life looked mundane,  aimless, pointless even.  Not mine, I vowed.  I would  set goals for myself and go about achieving them.  Simple as that.

But it didn’t quite work out that way.  My path took unexpected twists and  turns.   It  didn’t  lead steadily  to a noble destination, but instead  wound  through brambles, tangled ravines and rocky boulders.  I ran, I  stumbled,  I climbed, I  tripped,  I fell and I recovered,  with varying degrees of grace.

Admittedly, on its surface,  my life looks radically different from that of my mother.  I left home at an early age, attended  universities in distant states,  managed a demanding career,  travelled the world; accumulated a modicum of recognition for my work.  But at its core,  like my mother’s, my life was made of the usual stuff;  education, career, marriage, children, retirement.   And my path, like hers, was not the work of destiny, but the result of choices.

And  my path has  led me…. here. Not to a mountaintop and not to a swamp.  As it did my mother.

It’s tempting to  fall for the “one true thing”  pitch.  The idea that  we are  entitled to  the one true love, the one perfect career, the one true happily-ever-after is very appealing.   And perhaps it is true for some.   But my life didn’t  come with a blueprint; I made choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, that in the aggregate defined my path.  I wasn’t always sure of my choices,  and  they didn’t always lead to the mountaintop.

If I could answer my mother  now, I would reassure her that she didn’t miss her calling.  Like me, she simply made choices that led her to her destination.   And  at the end of the day, it was not our accomplishments, as my teenage self thought,  but the accumulation of our everyday thoughts and actions that defined us. Both of us.

 

 

The Easter Bunny

As a child, I remember thinking it was weird that the Easter Bunny  brought eggs.  And exasperating that no one else thought that was a bit strange.  Being the person in the family responsible for snatching
eggs  from beneath cranky setting hens, I knew for sure where eggs came from.

Turns out, though,  there really is a logical explanation for the egg-bearing  bunny.   According to Wikipedia, German Lutherans  apparently established the tradition of the “Easter Hare.”
But far from the cuddly bunny with big pink ears, the original Easter bunny (after all these were not only Lutherans, but GERMAN Lutherans) was actually a stern judge-bunny, dispensing his coveted eggs only to those children who had been good over the Lenten season.

And as for the eggs, early churches abstained from them during Lent.  And lacking refrigeration, the only way to keep them from spoiling was to boil them so they could eat them  after the fast was ended.  And  they probably decorated them as part of the celebration.  So that explains a lot.

But   I still find an Easter bunny (especially a chocolate one)  distracting to the Easter message of resurrection and hope.   I don’t think the idea of the Easter bunny is harmful to children; I just think it shortchanges  them  because it misses the life-giving  Easter message of hope; the gift of new beginnings,

I don’t have fond memories of the annual  Easter egg hunt, where my basket always needed help from the Sunday School teacher.  In retrospect, I know this was because of my uncorrected myopia, but still, I think I would have preferred to learn about the Easter Lily.

PEACE

 

This Lent, I promised myself to spend time each day away from the busy-ness of life, seeking peace – in meditation, quiet walks, reading, listening to music.   But then, as it has a way of doing, bit by distracting bit, sticky note by stick note, life happened..

So some days the best I can do is to let peace find me.

 

We need to talk..

Southerners are storytellers. We love to tell stories, outrageous, convoluted, highly embellished, wandering stories. Always alert for imagesan opening in the conversation, we leap at the chance to insert a favorite story. Stories are part of our that elusive quality, southern charm. For the most part, they are just that; charming. But when we tell them to ourselves, that’s a problem. I know. I spent much of my life doing that.

Stories are often told  to curry favor – a blatantly underhanded but sometimes successful, tool to get one’s way.   Sometimes  we’re just being kind. “What a beautiful baby”, is so much better to hear than, “Do you plan to get cosmetic surgery on that nose?” And  sometimes we tell stories to ourselves to keep going thru hardship – that’s called denial.  Denial gets a bad wrap these days, but  it can be useful on occasion.

But telling myself stories is treacherous, as I have recently been reminded. For years, I have been living in my own comfortable bubble. Sure that all “reasonable” people shared my world view; my concept of right and wrong, my standards of civility and morality.
And then November 8 happened. Like many of us, I was “flattened” by the news and struggled to come to grips with my fear  for our country’s future.  But many of my friends were ecstatic at the news!  Friends with whom I have celebrated, commisserated, shared confidences, assuming that we also shared world views. Confused and impatient with my reaction, they were optomistic for the future; anxious to put behind an era in which they felt forgotten and marginalized.  How could I had been so deaf to the people around me? Consumed by my own “busyness,” secure in my own little bubble. Blithely assuming they shared my beliefs, because, well, they’re my friends!

On the first day of English literature class at Berkeley, the professor announced, peering over his black rimmed seventies glasses at us “I’m going to threaten every one of your core beliefs. I am going to challenge everything you hold dear.”

It was a moment I will not forget. Still today I remember the cold terror, the icy knot in my stomach. I see myself in the semi-circle of
one-armed desks, cornered, threatened; that country girl from Louisiana, outclassed by the sophisticated kids from Eastern prep schools. I gripped the edge of the desk, fighting the urge to bolt from the room. But I couldn’t leave; I needed the credits. So I stayed, bracing myself for 10 weeks of rancor and humiliation.

But instead, the course introduced me to different ways of viewing the world.  Far from feeling defensive, I was fascinated to learn how other people, other cultures, came to believe as they did.  And  it turned out at the core, I wasn’t all that different from those fresh faced kids. We agreed more than we disagreed on most importantimages-1-copy things.I actually made new friends. During those weeks I discovered that some of what I  “believed,” I had simply absorbed  from people around me without much thought.  But most of what I believed was not changed; just the opposite!  A deeper, more critical understanding only strengthened them.  And most importantly,  I learned I could live in harmony with those with whom I did not agree; and they with me.

If there had been a good alternative to facing the perceived threat of English 101, I would have grabbed it. And missed a formative educational experience on which I would rely many times in my life, an experience not to be missed. It’s a small, oversimplified example.  But it illustrates the point.  As  families, communities, as a country, I hope, I pray we can  uniteface our fear of confrontation, talk and listen thoughtfully. I think we will be rewarded by the outcome. I refuse to believe we are a country of self-righteous pedants or unthinking bigots. We are bigger than that.

But first –
We need to talk. We really have no choice.


Instead of a book, this week I’m posting a link to an outstanding and timely  Ted Talk by Rob Willer  on the art of civil and productive conversation between liberals and conservatives.  A must read. Here’s the link.  http://bit.ly/2kdTjNw

 

 

 

The Christmas Pageant

 

christmas-554720__180I tried to tell Miss Julianne it wouldn’t work. Jimmy don’t have the sense God gave a billygoat. But he begged and whined and went on until she let him try it out at the  rehearsal.

Jimmy are y’all SURE this will work?” she asked, her hands on her hips, looking up into the loft where Jimmy squatted, dangling a rope swing. Miss Julianne is the prettiest lady I ever saw. And just as sweet as she is pretty. She’s got naturally blonde hair which curls all by itself, images-9 she doesn’t even have to use a perm.   She was wearing blue jeans and her husband Ronnie’s old work shirt.  Anyone else would have looked like a hobo, but she looked beautiful.

Jimmy put on that stupid grin of his that makes all the girls swoon, I don’t see why.

“Yes Ma’m” he said, sugar sweet. Don’t you worry a bit. Suellen  is just a little bit of a thing – we’ll just lower her down on this swing, me and  Buddy, when Brother Paul reads the part about the angels coming down and then haul her back up after we sing  Hark the Herod Angels.”

Herald, you idiot, ” I thought.

“You know I  wouldn’t never do nothing to hurt her.  It’ll be great, it’ll imagesbe the best part of the pageant.  You’ll see!”

“Well, Miss Julianne said.  “I still think it worked just fine last year, with us just dimming the lights and the angel climbing a ladder behind the manger. What do  y’all think?” She turned to the rest of us sitting in the pews waiting to practice our parts.

I could tell she was weakening. That’s the only thing about Miss Julianne. Sometimes she can be too nice.

No one said anything.  “Ya’ll, what do you think? “Still nothing.   No one wanted to get into it with Jimmy.

” Well, ” she finally said,  ” We got to make up our mind pretty soon so we can help the Ladies Aid with the decorating. We got a lot to do, we got to decorate the big tree outside, tie bows on all the pews, and clean up before we go. Remember, ice cream at the house for everyone when we get done. “

Wally  was scribbling in his little black notebook which he carries with him  everywhere  and writes down what happens and what he thinks and I don’t know what all. He has a whole shelf in his bedroom full of his crazy notebooks. His mama gets them for him  every Christmas over in Shreveport at Marshalls.  She gets them wholesale  since she owns Portia’s  Blossom Shop.

This year Wally’s a wise man instead of a shepherd like last year. I should of got  Mary, because why?  Because I wouldn’t forget my lines is why.  Last year Miss Julianne had to whisper almost every line to Georgia. At least I thought I should of  got  wise man like Wally. Instead, I had to be a shepherd again and wear a costume made out of a scratchy croaker sack with holes cut out  for the arms.

Miss Julianne doesn’t get to say who gets the parts. The Sunday School teachers all meet and decide the Sunday after Thanksgiving, in secret, so no one can get mad because they don’t like their part. But except for Miss Lavinia, who’s real old and pretty much deaf, they’re all men, so they always pick the prettiest girl, even if she’s dumber than a stump. Which Georgia was. I know that’s not nice to say, but it’s true.  She’s just pure D dumb.

So when  Georgia  graduated Junior High last year, which is the oldest you can be and still be in the pageant, I thought sure I had a chance, but this year Betsy got the part. At least Betsy isn’t dumb, but she’s not all that pretty either. I guess the best I can hope for is to make it to wise man next year. I don’t think the Sunday School teachers like me much. They say I ask too many questions, like the time I asked what a virgin is.  Mr Grady got real mad and said I shouldn’t talk like that in Church, and I had to get Wally to tell me.

“Jimmy’s up to something,” I whispered to Wally. ” I can tell by the
way Buddy is squirming around. He never could stand up to Jimmy. Lets him boss him around like he was his daddy or something instead of just his cousin.”

“Afraid of getting beat up, more like, if he won’t do what Jimmy tells him to.”

“But what if  they drop her and she gets hurt?  And who knows what else they’ll drop down out of the loft?  You know rats get up there. ”

He just shrugged. “Everyone knows Jimmy’s got a crush on Suellen. He’s just trying to impress her. But anyhow, it’s none of my never-mind,” he said making that pruney  little face of his.

“O Wally, you make me want to scream.” I hate how uppity he gets sometimes.  I decided if no one else was going to say anything, I ‘d have to. I walked over to where Miss Julianne was standing.

Miss Julianne? I said sweetly.

“Yes, Sugar, what is it?” she said, smiling and putting her arm around my shoulders.

“Miss Julianne, I just think .. “

Jimmy glared down at me from the loft where he squatted dangling the rope.

“I just think you’re right about last year, it was real pretty.  Why do we need to do anything different?”

Jimmy hopped down from the loft and began winding up the rope swing. “What do you know about it, four eyes?” I was the only girl with glasses and all the boys teased me about it. They were pink plastic and  ugly, and I hated wearing them,  but I couldn’t see past my nose without them.

“Now, Jimmy, stop talking like that and let her have her say, too!” Miss Julianne said, the way she can always make us mind without yelling.

Everyone stared at me. I felt like I had forgot to put on my clothes or something. “Well, I mumbled, “I just think it’s dangerous is all.”

Jimmy curled up his lip at me. “You’re just mad cause you have to be a shepherd. You ought to be glad you don’t have to be a sheep no more.”

I wouldn’t admit it, but he was right about the shepherd thing.

“Please, please, please, Miss Julianne,” Jimmy crooned, getting down on his knees and making his hands like he was praying.

“Now, Jimmy,” Miss Julianne said, laughing. Am I gonna have to paddle you again?

He gave her a big hug.

I was sunk.

country churchThe night of the pageant it was cold and sleeting. I had prayed for snow, but just like when I prayed my dog Pepper would get well, it didn’t happen. Mama says the Bible tells us “Ask and ye shall receive,” but so far that’s not working for me. I must be doing something wrong. One day I’ll ask Miss Julianne about it.

The church was full up. People like the Banks who never go to church except on Christmas were there with their whole raggedy family taking up the front pew where my Grampaw always sits. This happens to him every year. He just walked over real slow to where they were sitting and stood there, thumping his cane on the floor.

Pretty soon, Miz Banks looked up and said, “Why hello, Mr. Henry? Would you like to sit here? Betty Sue and Darrell, y’all go sit in the back. Just you set down right here, Mr. Henry. So nice to have you with us.”

Grampaw acted like he never heard a thing she said.  Just walked over to  the window where he always sat and waited for them to make room for him.   He sat down,  wedged his cane between him and Mr. Banks, looked at the Banks bunch like they had cooties (which they probably did) and  stared out the window. I think he sits here so he can see Gramma’s grave, but he’d never say that.

Mama and Daddy couldn’t get to their usual place, so they sat in back by the heater, which was actually better since it was cold in the church.  I ran downstairs to the Sunday School room where everyone was putting on their costumes, carrying a dishtowel and one of Grampaw’s old canes. Mama said she’d make me a costume, so I didn’t have to wear the croaker sack and she can sew anything, but  I didn’t want to make a big deal of it.

Suellen was prancing around the room in her angel costume, everyone going on about suellenhow pretty she looked. She had on a  white dress with lace ruffles on the bottom lace on the sleeves with white satin slippers to match and was carrying a stupid wand, like she was a fairy godmother instead of an angel, going around tapping everyone on the head and cooing, “Bless you, bless you.” I thought I would throw up. I pushed my way  over to the corner where Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie was images-5helping the little kids into their sheep costumes. The sheep part is the worst because you have to crawl around in a boiling hot costume.  They always give that to the little kids.    They think it’s fun, they don’t know everyone’s laughing at them.

“Hi,” Wally, said, adjusting his turban and brushing his robe.” Want

some help with your costume?”

“I don’t need help, thank you very much,” I grumbled, tying a dishcloth around my head.

“That’s looks real nice” he giggled.

“Shut up,” I said, sticking my arms through the croaker sack. “Shit, his damn thing  scatches!  I said under my breath.

“Cricket!” Wally said, putting his hand over his mouth and giggling. “In the Lord’s House! You’ll go to hell.”

‘Well, if I do, I guess I’ll see you there, Mr. Smarty Pants.”

Mr Ronnie whistled and yelled, “Y’all be quiet, Miss Julienne needs to say something. ”

“I’m so proud of y’all! Miss Julianne said, smiling.  “And I know you’re going to do great.“ Now lets go over the program  just one more time so we’ll be sure.  Everyone get your song sheets. ” Mr. Ronnie was passing out blue mimeograph copies that smelled like vinegar and the purple ink images-4rubbed off on your hands.

“The first one is Silent Night. Now remember everyone sings this one. Then everyone goes behind the curtain except Mary and Joseph.  Betsy, did you bring your doll?”

“Yes’m.  I brought my nicest one, with the China head that I got  last year for Christmas.”

“Oh, Betsy!  You brought you very BEST doll,” Miss Julianne said. Isn’t that NICE, y’all?”

“Next the the wise men sing  We Three Kings of Orient Are and then the shepherds  sing  While Shepherds Watched Their Sheep By Night”  And  I need ALL the wise men and ALL the shepherds singing, not just Wally and Cricket.

“No, you don’t, I thought. Wayne sounds like a dying horse, and Marvin’s tone deaf.”

“Then the congregation will stand and we’ll  all sing the final song Hark the Herald Angels Sing,  while Jimmy and Buddy let Suellen down from the loft.  Just one verse now, of all the songs.  Miss Martha will signal to you when to start and when to stop.”

Miss Martha  smiled and waved her pudgy finger in the air.  Miss Julianne put her hand over her heart. “Now Buddy and Jimmy, ya’ll be real, REAL careful with Suellen. Let’s pray before we go.”

“Good idea, I thought.”

We made a circle, joined our sweaty hands and chanted the Youth Fellowship prayer, “Lord, teach us to so number our days that we might apply unto wisdom.”

“And bless us as we carry thy message though this Christmas Pageant,” Miss Julianne  added. Amen. “

“Amen,” we chorused.

We tromped up the stairs in a line and walked behind the curtain. The church was full and kids was sitting on pallets on the floor, mamas standing holding babies. The church was so pretty;  there was flowers, candles, and big red bows everywhere and it smelled like pine and candle wax.  Buddy and Suellen climbed up the stairs into the loft,  Jimmy behind them. I thought I heard him say to Suellen, “I’ll show you a thing or two, you little tease.”  She hissed something at him, but I couldn’t hear what she said.

“I knew it.!  Why doesn’t anyone believe a thing I say?” I hissed to Wally.

He gave me one of his looks over his glasses. “What’s the matter with you?  Are you still mad about the shepherd thing?”

Before I could answer,  the curtain opened and Miss Martha plopped down on the piano bench. She’s so fat, we always think she’s going to break it  and we all got out our song sheets.  She held up her finger and started playing Silent Night while we all sang. Everyone in the

Chris Phillips, Flickr, Oxford, UK
Chris Phillips, Flickr, Oxford, UK

audience oohed and ahhed over the little kids.  When the wise men came out, Wally was the only one singing, the other two just hanging their heads and sorta mumbling. Wally didn’t seem to notice. When he’s on a stage, Wally’s  in hog heaven.  Next it was our turn, and not only was I the only singing shepherd,  Marvin and Wayne didn’t even know the words.

“This is the LAST time, the VERY LAST time I do this, I thought to myself. It’s hot and I itch all over; besides it’s embarrassing. I’m too old for this.”

And then it was time for the big finish. I felt a lump in my stomach. I knew something was going to go wrong, real wrong, but there wasn’t nothing I could do to stop it. Mr. Ronnie shined the spotlight up onto the loft where Suellen stood in her angel get-up.  In spite of her stupid wand, she looked look real nice, standing there in her white dress, holding out her arms, her clothes-hanger halo sparkling.

Miss Martha started up Hark the Herald Angels Sing and everyone in the church stood up to sing with us. While we sang, Suellen started to come down from the ceiling on the rope swing – almost like she was floating. Everyone in the church looked up at her like they could hardly believe it. The whole church was quiet.  Miss Julianne was standing off by the curtain, her hand over her heart. I think she was praying. I thought for a minute I may have been wrong. It really was pretty.  But then some of  the boys started giggling. That’s when I knew.

I looked up just in time to see Suellen fall out of the loft into the manger, landing with a big crash right on top of the Baby Jesus doll. Everyone started yelling and going on and Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie went running over to see if Suellen was OK. She was, all except for being fighting mad, scratched up and the sleeve of her angel dress tore plumb off from where she caught it on the manger.   She was sitting up, picking hay from the manger out of her halo and yelling at Jimmy  that she’d get him back for this and he was laughing his head off.   And Betsy was fit to be tied.  “Git off my Doll, “she yelled.

Sure enough the doll’s face was cracked where Suellen fell on top of her and her wand was stuck into the doll’s stomach. The boys was all snickering, Betsy was crying and Miss Julianne was walking around making sure no one was hurt. The people in the church was real quiet.  But then there was another big thunk and  Miss Bernice had fainted dead away in the third pew.  She’s real  bad to take fainting spells if she gets over-excited except Mama thinks she’s just putting on for attention.  Miss Lavinia was fanning Miss Bernice with her handkerchief and Vonda Fay was waving smelling salts over her face,  She uses them in her beauty shop for ladies who fall out from the permanent wave fumes.

Mr. Ronnie came running up onto the stage. “Which one of you knuckleheads done this?” he yelled, looking straight at Jimmy.   Mr. Ronnie is a real nice man as long as you don’t do nothing to make Miss Julianne unhappy. I seen him grab Wilbur Spivey by the neck and throw him out the door of Vickers Newsstand just for cussing where Miss Julianne could hear. I  remember thinking I wouldn’t want to be Jimmy right now.

Brother Paul was trying to get everyone to be quiet. “Quiet, Brothers and Sisters,” he kept saying. “Be still.   This is the Lord’s house. There is no harm done. Let’s all be seated and have a word of prayer.”

Miss Lavinia and Vonda Faye got Miss Bernice back up on her feet and helped her out on the porch to get some air.  Miss Julianne closed the curtains on the stage. We all looked at her. She looked so sad. I thought sure she was going to fuss at us which I can’t stand. But she  looked back at us for what seemed a long time. Finally   she sorta smiled.  And then she began to laugh. At first we thought she was crying. But when we saw she was laughing, one by one we all started laughing.  She opened the curtains and walked out onto the stage.

“Y’all, she said, still laughing. “I don’t know when I’ve seen such aimages-12
Christmas pageant to beat this one.“ The whole church began to laugh, even Brother Paul. Even Grampaw, who hardly ever laughs. Everyone except for Mr. Ronnie  who was standing in the back of the church with his arms folded over his chest.   After all the laughing died down,  Brother Paul walked up behind the pulpit.

“Brothers and Sisters, “ he said, real serious-like.  “Some of us here tonight have not understood what Christmas is all about and  could have ruined it  for the rest of us with their foolish prank.  Luckily no real harm was done and I am quite sure that those responsible will be held accountable.  Jimmy’s face was redder than Santa’s cap.  But no one can ruin the Christmas story; it’s too powerful.  It’s about turning sadness into joy.  It’s about the love and forgiveness this community have for each other.  Nothing can take the joy of Christmas from us.  And we’ve had plenty of that tonight. Let us pray,” he said. “Let us give thanks to the Lord for a joyful Christmas.”

Death of a Hero

On November 22,  fifty three years ago, our 35th President, John J. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 Dallas time.    If you are over 65, you remember exactly where you were, what you were doing, how you felt, how it affected you.  This was a major even in our nation’s history.   

Lesser known are the effects of  JFK’s assassination on our personal lives.   The story below recounts how the events of that day dramatically changed a young woman’s life.  The photos roughly chronicle the events as they unfolded. 


  “Need these by five,”  my boss mumbled, scattering a stack of files on my desk and lumbering  off, tie askew, trailing a cloud of pipe 3998d8221f810b61e6595d1c4dab8afcsmoke.  I glanced at office clock on the wall above me. It read 12:18 PM.

I nodded; more resigned than annoyed. I had an ambivalent relationship with my boss. He was a great untidy bear of a man, prone to harmless bluster and the sort of absentminded foibles and miscalculations that bring out the maternal instinct in women.  A kind and generous man, he was unfailingly optimistic, well-read and surprisingly intelligent, given his mind-numbing job as Lead Patent Attorney.  I enjoyed long philosophical conversations with him and was flattered that he valued my opinion.  I liked him. I liked working for him.  In fact, I probably had a crush on him.

But Frank Bluxom was not an easy boss. He was hopelessly disorganized and an inveterate procrastinator.  Much of my day was spent looking for things he had misplaced; a file, his pipe, his stapler, even his telephone, which sometimes could only be found by following the cord to where it was hiding beneath a conglomeration of files, crumpled notes, paper clips, pipe tobacco, sometimes even his hat.

True to form, he’d received these patents for review three days ago but had only begun reviewing them this morning.  In retrospect, this should have enraged rather than simply annoyed me.  Reviewing the applications consisted mostly of scrawling comments on the forms, occasionally fortressed with a few hours’ research in the law library.   Completing them on the typewriter, however, was a nerve-wracking challenge in the pre-Xerox, pre-Microsoft world.   For each page, legal sized forms with seven slippery, inky carbon copies had to be assembled into a sandwich, coaxed into the carriage of an electric typewriter and aligned.  Inevitably this precarious assemblage slowly began to separate, breath-holding by heart-sinking bit as it neared the bottom of the page.  Once this happened, erasing was impossible and a single error meant retyping the entire page…. with its copies.I never made it through all the forms without retyping at least one.

My heart sank.  All week I had been looking forward to my Friday shopping trip with my friend Katie. But now it wasn’t going to be possible to finish these files without skipping  lunch and working late.  But far worse, when I arrived home late, I risked  confronting an unpredictable and volatile husband,  angry and suspicious because I was late, his suspicion fueled  by the fact that I received no extra compensation for overtime.   I dreaded the long ride home, standing on the crowded city bus, nauseated by the its jerking motion, enveloped in a cloud of sweat and exhaust fumes.  I obsessively rehearsed in my head my what I would say as I walked in the door, a futile exercise since his  reaction was impossible to predict.  In fact, sometimes  I would be met with a cheery “Hi, Honey, how was your day?”

But not usually.  He could be silent for hours, refusing to eat the dinner I prepared.  It was not uncommon for him to hurl a random object around the room, an ashtray, a book, or worse, if I were late more than an hour, pin me against the wall,  screaming at me for being unfaithful.

I should have been angry. No, I should have quit.  The job AND the images-3marriage.  But I was young and naive.  I didn’t know that I deserved respect.  In my warped perspective, I saw all the abuse in my life as a challenge.  I fancied myself some kind of superwoman.

  I was lost in thought, still hoping  to somehow squeeze in my shopping trip  when Lawler Stevens, the Senior images-2
Partner, suddenly burst through his door, two offices down and declared loudly “The President’s been shot,” in a tone more appropriate to the announcement of a football score.

  The typewriters slowly fell silent as his words sank in.  We sat stunned,  faces frozen inunknown-5 disbelief, the only sound the click of the second hand on the office clock.  Suzanne, at the desk ahead finally broke the silence in a quavering voice, “Mr. Stevens, are you sure? I mean…Shot?!”

Ignoring her, he said tersely, “Everyone in my office.”  

We entered tentatively, like stray dogs sneaking into a house while
the owners were away.  Only Evelyn, his private secretary and the attorneys ever crossed that hallowed threshold. I silently prayed no one would notice my  spike heels, badly in need of caps,  snagging the plush gold  carpet at every step.

Degrees from prestigious universities, awards from prominent legal organizations and commendations from community groups were tastefully framed on the paneled wall behind  Mr. Steven’s enormous mahogany desk, his high-backed leather chair slightly askew where he had hastily abandoned it.

On the credenza behind his desk, a  stereo set was tuned to the local public radio station. Incredibly, it was true. Walter Cronkite was detailing the events in familiar paternal tones as they unfolded.  unknown-9  Drawn by the excitement, people from nearby offices crowded the door, anxious whispers of “What’s going on? What? What happened?” mingled with sobs and murmurs of those inside.  I stood in stunned silence.  My hand went to my mouth to stifle a scream too deep to surface.  Suzanne began to weep.  Evelyn warily observed Lawler Stevens’ increasing discomfort with the show of emotion. A blush of red began spreading over his face. He motioned Evelyn over.

“Get them out of here,” I heard him whisper to her.  “I thought I was doing them a favor, asking them in to hear the news, but I was expecting them to act like adults, for crissake. Bunch of crybabies.  What the hell do they expect, the Kennedys have always been corrupt. Bound to have enemies.”

“But Lawler, I thought you wanted – I mean, the President’s just…”

“I said, “he hissed, “Get. Them. Out. Of. HERE!”

“Oh, Will,” please. “Will,” short for William, Lawler Stevens’ middle name, was Evelyn’s pet name for him. He glowered at her. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of her disobedience or her careless allusion to their poorly kept secret.

She acquiesced. “Hey, everyone,” Evelyn announced in a loud and cheery voice. “This is awful, I know, but Mr. Stevens would like some time by himself right now, it’s been such a shock and all, so if we could just go on back…”

“But the radio.” I began timidly.  Personal radios were not allowed at
our work stations.

Stevens, now seated at his desk, glowered at me, “It’s not the goddamn end of the world,” he growled.  “At least we didn’t lose a Republican.  Now, we have deadlines and I intend to see that we meet them. And that means YOU need to meet YOURS!”  He slammed a bulging file on his desk and began untying its leather ties.

Frank Bluxom lumbered obediently out of the office, head down, rumpled suit jacket askew,  a rag-tag parade of subdued attorneys and stunned secretaries following.   I walked slowly,  anger rising in my chest, to my scarred office desk with its rump sprung typing chair, no longer caring whether my heels snagged the expensive carpet.

The phone was ringing as I sat down. It was Katie. “Did you HEAR?” Katie worked in the Marketing Department five floors above.

“Yes.”

“Oh Annie, our poor country.” She was crying.unknown-7

“I know,” I said. “I can’t work.”

“Neither can I. Shopping is out anyway, let’s just go for a quick smoke. I have a transistor radio.”

We walked past the gleaming steel walls of the lobby, through thick glass doors, pulling our sweaters around us against the chill of the brisk November morning. The sun reflecting off the metal towers of Hammond Steel International created pools of shimmering light on the nearby lake.   We meandered through manicured rows of native wildflowers meticulously maintained by the Botanical Society to our favorite bench beside the lake.  Open to the public, Hammond Gardens was widely touted as a major cultural contribution to the community and a lavish gift to Hammond’s 3000+ employees.  However, the gardens were seldom visited by Hammond employees, a testimony to the disconnect between the Hammond Board and its employees.

The details of the conversation between Katie and me that November day are buried under decades of memories. I suspect we just sat with each other, trying to make out Walter Cronkite’s voice on Katie’s crackling transistor radio, crying and hugging each other, fearing for our country. Mourning the loss of our President, our hero, the loss of Camelot, the death of a dream.  That mourning, that morning, I do remember. Remember it well.

I lost more than a national hero that day.  My lifelong assumption that ours was a country set apart, safe and secure, immune and unconnected to war and misery in distant countries, that comforting blanket of naivety, was rudely and irretrievably ripped from me.         That day images-4represents for me the first crack in the facade of  national  innocence.    But it was only a crack. We clung to our fragile illusion; we wanted to believe it.  It was so much easier to believe that truth is either black or white than to bother with the shifting grey shades of reality.  We wanted to believe that good people who play by the rules will always win, and that bad people, and only bad people will be tracked down and punished.  We wanted; we thought we had, a “Gunsmoke” kind of world.

We clung to the hope that this horrible day was a rare anomaly, that things would soon return to “normal.”  After all, after Lincoln’s assassination, the country didn’t fall apart, did it?  But sadly and images-5soon, other wrenching losses followed on our heartbreaking journey to our national  loss of innocence.

And the terrifying events of the day jarred me into seeing my own world through different eyes.   I’d always admired the attorneys I worked for. This was my first job after high school.  could hardly believe my good fortune to work for, even to know, such important people. They led the kind of lives I’d only read about in books.  They had Ivy league educations, belonged to the Country Club, had addresses that ended in Avenue, Court, Circle, Blvd., not, as in my case, Apt No.

Until that day, Lawler Stevens, in particular, was to me the embodiment of the American Dream.  Athletic and tanned with a tumble of thick sandy hair above a high forehead, he was handsome in the casual way of those born to privilege. His suits were custom tailored, his ties silk, and he wore a Rolex.   As an undergraduate, he was a member of the prestigious Harvard rowing team.  He graduated Yale Law School at the top of his class and reportedly had a IQ in the 140s. He had a six figure income, a beautiful wife who frequented expensive spas, scorned costume jewelry and drove a red Alpha Romeo convertible.  He had two children in private school and a summer home in the Hamptons.  He drove a Jaguar.

I, on the other hand, graduated from a small rural high school in the rural South and my entry level secretarial position paid slightly over minimum wage.  My husband was a poorly educated and frequently unemployed blue collar worker.  My children-to-be would attend public schools. I took the bus to work. I had no clue what my IQ was, or really even WHAT an IQ was.

I can’t say that November 21, 1963 had an immediate effect on my world view.   But it was a crack in the facade, a rip in the fabric.  I began to see that heroes were vulnerable.  That people could hate my heroes.   And by observing their self-centered and callous reactions to a tragic event for our nation,  I began to see that all powerful people were not heroes.  Certainly Lawler Stevens was not. He was so arrogant to be oblivious of history happening in front of him.  He was a fool.

And the other attorneys had done nothing this day or any other to oppose Lawler’s outrageous demands and insensitive treatment of his employees. They colluded in covering up his affair with his secretary, which in those days could have been grounds for his dismissal and certainly hers, since Hammond’s  President and Founder, Henry Hammond was staunchly Mormon.  They gossiped about Stevens in hushed whispers behind his back and curried his favor in his presence. Given the opportunity, they would have stepped over his body without a backward glance in their race to grab power for themselves.

Even my teddy bear of a boss, I had to admit, was no friend.  He saw nothing disrespectful in delaying his work until the last minute, unfairly pressuring me to compensate for his procrastination and disorganization.  If he had any appreciation of the difficulty of my job or the stress he subjected me to, he never acknowledged it.  My completed work was usually met with a muffled “Mfffph” or no comment at all as he walked away with the files, puffing on his pipe.   When I confided in him my dream of continuing my education, he actively opposed it.

“What are you thinking?” he bellowed in disbelief. The other secretaries stopped their typing and looked up.

“You couldn’t compete with those students!  They’re 10 years younger and graduated from expensive prep schools!  Why they’d eat you alive!” Noticing my hurt and disappointment, he quickly added.  “It’s just that I’d hate to see you get hurt like that.”

Fighting back tears, I slunk back to my desk.  All eyes were on me, wide with pity.  It was mortifying, but also motivating. It was soon after that I seriously began plans to continue my education.  It would be a long, torturous path, but his callous disdain had given me the push I needed.  In retrospect, I doubt that his reaction was about me at all.  I suspect he knew his chances of replacing me with someone as competent that would also indulge his outrageous behavior were slim to none.  It took a while, but finally – I quit that job. And entered the university.

Everyone knows exactly where they were at 12:30, Dallas time, November 22, 1963.  In moments such as these we are shaken into reality, forced to evaluate our priorities.  In the view of many, that day  marks the end of our innocence as a nation.   And for me and perhaps others, in facing the loss of a true hero, we gained courage to re-evaluate our priorities and to honor our own integrity.unknown-1

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