Thursday, January 27, 2011

Candles for Anna

Yesterday was the birthday of a railroad widow I came to know. She's been dead a long time. She comes to mind every January 26. It's my way of honoring a friendship not sought out but inevitable as I spent time in her sweet presence.

Her name was Anna. She was in her 80s when we met. Her last name was Irish but I learned she was born of parents from central Europe. She was Bohemian she said. She shared the same Catholic faith with the young Irishman she fell in love with and whose name, along with his two sons, she bore.

In writing the church history she was a name given to me as being a font of information. I interviewed her at her apartment and then went back to see her as a friend.

She was kind and interesting. Hers had not been an easy life. Her disposition mirrored her peaceful acceptance of events. She made me so welcome on every visit.

She told about a railroad accident which her husband, on a rare free day from work, had had to respond to. This happened probably back in the 1920s. They were all set to leave on a picnic when the news came to him that he must get to the rail yard fast.

She was left with the picnic lunch, into which she’d put such care, and two disgruntled little boys who had their hearts as set on the outing as she had.

All of us go through a remarkable number of small disappointments. I could imagine her sitting there with the picnic basket and no place to go on a lovely summer day.

The train wreck needed her prayers and thoughts. She could quickly and naturally respond to the gravity of the situation. She put her disappointment as a small thing compared to that. But she must have wondered about life’s timing. The train mishap, as if on cue, happened at the very moment to prevent the anticipated picnic.

There were other memories she shared with me, such as the excitement every summer among the ladies of the church as they got ready for the annual festival.

Pushing their babies in strollers they visited the downtown shops selling tickets for raffles and promoting the fundraising efforts of the little parish church. She had a special friend who made the expeditions a lark. They must have relished the chance to be out for a cause, taking sensible advantage of this chance to pair up and be out on the town.

There was insane enjoyment in their volunteer work. It gave them reason to dress up a bit. It let them briefly be part of the civic scene. They visited with the store owners not as customers but as the sales people they were as they came to boost the parish festival.

Sadly, the friend died at a young age. Anna's story, vivid with animated recall, quietly ended.

In life we meet truly lovely people. Sometimes it’s for a short time. Sometimes it’s for a long while. We don’t know a lot of people a whole lifetime. Luckily they can stay with us through memory, such as my thoughts of Anna, and Anna's that day of her friend.

If living, Anna would be well over a hundred. The light of her memory is like her birthday candles. They shine with the fire of love that has eternal glow.

Ro Giencke - 2011

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Winter with Ernest Hemingway

Blue skies and white banks of compacted snow print a January scene on the retina while the brain, disregarding the message it receives, goes on searching for a blaze of tropical color for eyes to latch onto.

My friend is spending the month in Arizona and she has made a good decision. I recall how sunny and mild the Southwest can be from winters in Texas and New Mexico. Mesas, cacti and the turquoise vault overhead would be perfect antidotes to the Minnesota winter this has turned out to be.

One can deal with persistent cold even though it gets to be a strain. It’s the wind and the constant spurts of snow – falling in amounts just enough to gum up the roads for commutes – which have put the Winter of 2011 into the high nuisance bracket.

Maybe it’s the cold weather which is keeping the squirrels out of sight. I do remember there was a period last year when they disappeared. Then all of a sudden they were all over the place.

Some were in the high branches of the trees the other day. So we’re still spotting a few. Like last winter, we wonder how they dare jump from limb to high limb. A strong gust, as has been blowing lately, could surely throw their light weight off.

The rosemary shrub we brought in from the deck has amazingly flourished. It has bright green growth at the tips. The sprigs smell so good when rubbed through the fingers. The plant, in its pot close to the window, must feel the nip of outside air.

No doubt it puzzles how it ended up here. What tweak of fortune, it ponders, prevented it from the destiny it had in mind for itself, to be an ornamental bush trimmed with pretty blue flowers, giving definition to some residential corner lot two skips and a hop away from the sea.

January is a good time to visit on the phone. It’s easier than warming up cars and driving in frozen state across town. I recently had a good conversation with a friend on the other end of the line.

We were enjoying the sunshine as we talked. It’s been a rather cloudy period. We agreed that a cold day full of sunshine is a pretty good deal.

I said I'd finished some ironing. Certain pieces of clothing are really helped by the touch-up an iron gives. I don’t iron often. Once in awhile a burst of ironing commitment comes over me and then it’s a rather enjoyable job. A pressed shirt or pair of slacks can look so neat.

Interestingly enough, even when we don’t like the snow, cold and blow, we’re trained from childhood here to deal with it. A surge of coping comes along, lifting us when we most need the energy to handle it. Coping is done by connecting in my book. Communication of all kinds bridges the season for me.

Al catches fish and this adds to the variety of winter meals. We’ve been eating well and simply. We stock up on items on our grocery trips. It’s nice to save a trip or two to the store at this cold time.

I remind myself, when my eye can’t fasten on hibiscus and I clomp out of the house in my warmest boots to the road salt-grimed car, that this has been a shorter winter for us than for some. We did get away after all. It already seems far in the past. But we did have a break from this.

We were in Key West over Christmas. It was a wonderful time. A highlight for me was a visit to the home of writer Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway reaches into me. He’s one of my first picks as a novelist. It made settling on a book, once we were home, very easy. Across the River and into the Woods –not considered one of his great books but one that suits me – is on the reading table now.

Hemingway, we learned, as the tour led to the final stop, and several of the forty-five resident cats were pointed out, had an upstairs studio. It's separate from the house. It's set amid palms and reached by an outside staircase. The swimming pool his third wife put in while he was away in Europe stretches out blue and inviting below.

The studio has been left intact. His work space is as he used it and as it was arranged. His Royal typewriter is on the table. The author often wrote standing up. Shrapnel from WWI was never fully removed. He was often in pain from that.

The upstairs hallway of his home has a glassed-in bookcase. It interested me to see his personal collection. Imagine someone coming into your house and standing in front of your selections, whether music, books or any other topic of private interest. Disconcertingly, complete strangers evaluate your selections, scanning the rows of titles.

It could make you not want to strive for greatness, just knowing this could be in the works for you. Fleetingly I thought of the mishmash of personal articles in almost anyone’s home. More than we suspect, the objects we surround ourselves with or collect reveal us.

Pardon me, Hemingway, I said, looking over the titles as I could make them out. I just want to know you – the full and complex man whose writings still hold us. As he clacked away on the Royal these very books must have helped shape the stories he set down to tell.

Bibles or hymn books, old tomes which were likely family keepsakes, were shelved with what must have been, at the time, a current detective novel. I smiled to see The Adventures of Tom Sawyer among the reference volumes and other books.

I pictured Hemingway at the bookcase hunting for a book – a certain book according to mood or frame of mind. The shelves would be scoured for something that gave solace or provided entertainment or escape according to the whim.

Even in Key West, where winter is no problem, books while away time, add richness to the day and help craft a writer’s creativity.

While vacationing, we tried to establish how many trips to Florida we’ve made. I’m not sure if we ever came to an exact number. There have been several air flights and driving vacations. There were fun times with the kids with all the things in Florida for a family to do.

Thinking about Florida pushed memory all the way back. At ten it would have been impossible to regard Florida as in my future. It was beyond the reality I could take in. Moreover, it was in the opposite direction of any vacation trip we took, which was West to the Pacific Coast.

But that year, my tenth year or so, my cousins went to Florida. They went to the Everglades. They drove all the way to Key West. As if that wasn’t epic enough, they ended their road trip not by going home to Missouri but my looping way north to visit us.

After hot Florida the thought of the cool waters of the lake region worked on their notions better than aloe vera on sunburns. There was still beach sand in the car when they arrived. It was on the car mats. It was white and soft as powder. They laughed as they shook it out.

It could have been grains of magic for the effect the beach sand had on me. I was so impressed with my aunt and uncle and cousins. To me they had seen the world. The spirit of adventure that informed their vacations added to my desire to travel widely too.

None of us knows with certainty who plants the first seeds of our longings. Admiration for people or places derives from deep places as well as coming upon us full-blown. But many aspirations certainly are formed in our early years.

I gave a silent thank you to my relatives as we enjoyed the Key West vacation. In a big way, without knowing it, they helped bring this about.

The seeds of my longings were in the soft, white stowaway sand. Sun, sand and travel have proved to be the trio that spark my ambitions, shape my interests and soothe my inner being. They put all the rest into context, including a lumpy, bumpy January soon coming to an end.

Ro Giencke -2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King: 25th Anniversary Tribute

This is the 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King holiday as a Federal holiday. I trace back the long thread of those years to that first designated holiday. It was 1986 as both the arithmetic and memory inform me. It was our first winter in our new home. The day itself, I believe, was mild enough to comment on.

We did what a lot of young couples do when a day is given to you free to fill. We used it on ourselves. We went out for breakfast which we happen to like to do. We ordered bacon and eggs and pancakes which we ate with gusto. We read the paper, sipped our coffee. We came home the scenic route which took us along an iced-over river, snowy banks rising on either side.

The memory of the mild gray morning, snowy fields and the breakfast date with my husband is so clear, after such a span of time, because of one specific thing. That particular Monday was speaking to us, carefree as we were. The creation of our own ritual within the new holiday has held as a lasting image because loosely we understood the intent of the day.

It was a baby start but a start. In schools, in the years when our kids were small, the King holiday often served as an opening for studying and celebrating diversity. This, too, was a good start. Many wonderful things start small. They build upon themselves and evolve as a kind of test of time.

The twenty-fifth anniversary is a milestone of sorts. The King holiday is in our makeup. It's in our soul. I wonder, on this occasion marking going forward into the next twenty-five years, what Dr. King would want us to take into the future as his continuing legacy.

His greatness is never in doubt. His stirring words will move the generations. His natural leadership, in the speeches that sang with poetry and rang with passionate oratory, rallied and repelled. Standing to the crowds Martin Luther King shook the country's conscience.

He was a lightning rod for change. Racial inequalities needed to cease. They needed to be corrected and this seemed feasible only by something close to social revolution. Oh yes, the man had mountains to climb.

When he scaled those heights, like the prophet he was, he called out. I have a dream, he said. I have a dream.

Like a shaking off of slothfulness, or as rising from a deep slumber, a purposeful rumbling grew. It got stronger and spread. We Shall Overcome, the marchers sang. The dream was received into the world.

America and its people went through birth throes in the loss of innocence that began with John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

By the year 1968 there was no naivete left. Within months of each other King and Robert F. Kennedy, impassioned voices for the unclaimed and the unheard, vital men at the height of their powers, were dead. And people wept and wondered as they fell.

Many use today, the Martin Luther King holiday, as a day for volunteerism or service. Some take time to reflect. We look up his speeches. We study the quotes. We inspect our attitudes in the light of his light. We have learned. As a nation we continue to grow.

-honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1929-68.