The Signs Around Us

You don’t need a calendar to know it’s August, and summer is growing weary. Mornings are often foggy with humidity, and I walk into the gossamer silk of spider webs spun on the porch overnight. The zucchini plants gave up a few weeks ago and although the tomatoes, peppers, and a smattering of green beans are still making a valiant effort, for the most part, garden season is over. The pots of annuals planted with such optimism in May are now filled with leggy petunias. Once-beautiful flowers have withered to a few stunted brownish blossoms and been overtaken by the greens in the baskets. The insects hum 24/7 and goldfinches are happily removing seeds from the cone-flowers. For the next few weeks, there will be a frenzy at the hummingbird feeders as the amazing little birds tank up for their long journey south and then one day, they’ll simply be gone.

For those of us who are students or teachers, or former teachers, August brings with it that Sunday-night-syndrome feeling—a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. We savor those last days at the pool, which has grown bathwater warm, or the beach or cabin in the mountains. The blissful indolence of staying up late and sleeping in even later is over, and responsibility descends upon us once again.

Even though we’re tethered to our phones and devices to tell us what to do, when to do it, and what time of the day, week, or year it is, we are still guided by the signs around us. We respond to sensory stimuli, whether they be man-made or created by nature. This summer, especially, I have been overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of violence and fear infiltrating the lives of ordinary people–the sound of gunshots coupled with cruel and abrasive words being shouted into a microphone, and the views of people running from a building with raised hands, followed by scenes of flower-laden funerals and weeping family members. And then, a few days ago, I saw a sign in a grocery store parking lot that brought me up short.

Parking lot sign

Attached to a light pole near the center of the massive parking lot was a sign that read “Emergency Evacuation Gathering Point.” I understand that it was probably recommended by the store’s security people, but never in all my years of going in and out of public buildings have I seen a sign like that, nor have we ever needed signs like that until now. I tried to tell myself that its most likely purpose was to safely evacuate and account for people if there were ever a fire or some kind of building-related emergency, similar to the assigned places for our classes in school fire drills. But with El Paso’s Walmart fresh in my mind, I realized it was also there in case someone came into the store and started shooting.

Lord have mercy, this was a grocery store! But there is no longer safe ground— schools, churches and synagogues, movie theaters and nightclubs, stores and outdoor concerts–every place where people gather is vulnerable. This list grows longer as we become almost inured to the news footage. Another day, another shooting–we recoil in horror for a day or two and then go about our business because we have not been directly affected. Yet. Meanwhile, our lawmakers continue to squabble and fight like schoolyard children, retaining their power on the dead bodies of innocent people.

I don’t live my life in fear, but I am sensitive to the signs around me. The signs of nature tell me that another summer is drawing to a close, which I always find rather depressing. I’m also increasingly aware of the signs that our society is changing and not necessarily for the better. Perhaps that’s the typical mantra of those of us who have reached a certain age. “The world’s going to hell in a hand basket and hey, kid, get off my lawn while you’re at it.” But I don’t think it’s just my age talking. This is different. The world is different, and the signs are all around us, including those found in a grocery store parking lot.

 

The Man in the Back Row

Every summer we sing at a retirement facility where a good friend and former organist from our church currently resides. The room where the vespers service is held feels like a conference room in an upscale hotel—tastefully decorated in understated luxury complete with cushioned chairs and hideous carpet. It appeared to be deserted until I glanced up and noticed an elderly gentleman sitting in the back row with his head bowed. He looked rather dejected or perhaps he was just dozing but didn’t appear to be in any kind of physical distress. I almost felt as though our presence was infringing on a private moment. I wondered how long he had been sitting there and why. Did he just need a place to be alone for a while? Did he come too early for the service and after realizing it,  just decided it was easier to stay and wait?

We warmed up and practiced with our friend and he paid us little attention, although he watched with interest as we sang during the service. Afterwards, lots of his fellow residents spoke with him and he seemed animated and engaged. Maybe, like all of us, he just needed some time to rest, to gather his strength, to think things through without anyone bothering him, before he was ready to face the world again. Maybe he just needed a place to hide out for a while.  Did the service or the music rejuvenate him? Was it the pastor’s message (which was a good one) that helped lift him up from wherever he was?

Our choir director often reminds us that we never know for whom we sing. Someone may be hearing a song for the first time or they may be hearing it for the last time, and we owe it to them to give it our best effort. We never know what burdens someone is carrying or what news they received that day or how they came to be sitting in the seats in front of us.  But the gifts we extend–whether it be through music or dance, spoken words or theater–may be just what that person needs to feel even the tiniest shift in their perspective. What we can offer may open a door to let a sliver of light shine through what had been an impenetrable curtain of darkness.

I will never know why that man chose to sit by himself in the last row of a large empty conference room in the late afternoon of a beautiful summer Sunday. But I do know that he appeared to be refreshed and strengthened when he left, walking unassisted into the hallway and back to his room or apartment and the life he now leads, perhaps for the first time in many years, without a beloved spouse. I was reminded that every time we perform, there is always a gentleman in the back row who needs to hear us.

Family Reunion

Fourth of July afternoon brought mid-Atlantic summer weather at its worst—thunderstorms on repeat and in between, steaming, swampy humidity. My first inclination was to curl up with a good book or binge Stranger Things on Netflix. But a year ago, my cousin planned a family reunion at a park in Maryland, a little over an hour’s drive from where we live. My husband and I looked at the rain pelting the windows, and, since the pet-sitter was coming anyway, decided to brave it. We figured if the party was rained out, we’d go to eat somewhere in Baltimore.

Driving down 83 and onto the beltway, I kept having second thoughts. I am one of those high-functioning introverts who would happily speak before a crowd of 500 rather than walk into a social situation where I may not know people and need to make small talk. But we soldiered on through the rain, arrived at the park and found my family happily gathered under a pavilion. The picnic had been going on for a while, the food looked a little tired and damp, but none of that mattered. Re-connecting with people I have rarely seen, some for almost forty years, was, just like the commercial says, priceless.

These were the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my mother’s brothers and sister. I could look around and see glimpses of my mother in their eyes, in their gestures, in the way they spoke. I could see my Uncle Morris shucking oysters in our backyard on Thanksgiving, while the adults gathered around to watch, sipping their old-fashioneds. I could see myself terrorized by my older cousins at Hershey Park, way back in the unsafe days of fun houses, bumper cars and the turnpike. As the youngest child of the youngest sibling, I was fair game for all kinds of abuse.

I could hear my Aunt Harriet playing the electronic organ she had in her home when I talked to her great-granddaughter, a talented young teen who loves to sing. I could taste my Aunt Norma’s fudge and feel the chaos of holiday dinners filled with too many over-stimulated children high on Hawaiian Punch. I could hear Uncle Tom’s rumbling laugh as he shot pool or ran the electric train set in his knotty pine basement. And I remember how Uncle Herman, a brilliant retired physician, pulled every string he could to save my mother’s life, and how all of us were forever changed when the irrepressible and beloved Aunt Gussie was the first to pass away, taken by breast cancer at fifty-eight.

Rannels, Denney Misc. (3)

As we go through our lives, we carve out new relationships and many of those relationships turn into our family of choice, if not of blood. Unless we live in close proximity, our childhood family fades away until someone like my cousin herds all the cats and insists that it’s time to get together, marvel at the grandchildren and tell the stories that keep us forever bound to each other, no matter how inconvenient or awkward or even if it happens to be in the pouring rain.

We original cousins are older and grayer now, mostly retired and a bit the worse for wear. But we still showed up to sit on rain-slippery picnic benches, eat food from soggy paper plates and watch a new generation of kids become over-sugared, this time from the snow-cone machine. We showed up to remember how much we have in common, how much we miss the parents and aunts and uncles who loved us and who we see reflected in each other’s faces, and how grateful we are to be a family, together once again.

Rannels house & store 2

 

 

Family History

I remember the old black Underwood typewriter sitting on a rickety metal table in my grandparents’ den. I would roll a piece of paper onto the carriage, poke random keys with their inlaid letters, slam the carriage back at the sound of the bell and play “secretary” until one of the type hammers got stuck. I can still see my grandfather seated at that table, pecking out the occasional letter or medical report.

Young Dr. Denney

The papers I hold in my hand today were typed on that machine by my grandfather as a young man in 1912, shortly before his own grandmother passed away. They are yellowed and fragile, and I need my reading glasses to see the slightly fuzzy words, especially those on the carbon copies. They are first-person accounts of the history witnessed by a woman who lived in a small south-central Pennsylvania town from the mid-1800’s until her death in 1913.

Rachael D. Denney

My great-great-grandmother, Rachel Denney, saw William Henry Harrison’s body being borne back to Ohio on a canal boat passing through Columbia in April 1841, when he died after barely a month in office. Several years later, she described seeing, “a very red faced, gray haired man, who in the full military regalia of a general mounted on a white horse gave a stirring address on the dangers confronting the country in the event of his rival’s election.” That man was Zachary Taylor, campaigning for President in 1848. There is also an incomplete description of a regional cholera epidemic in 1854 which began when an infected patient was removed from a train stopped at the local station.

Perhaps the story that has received the most publicity, especially at this time of year, is her recounting of fleeing from the confederate army in June 1863. Rachel and her children were smuggled out of town in the back of a furnace cart, while her husband, John, remained at home, and together with other citizens, burned the bridge across the Susquehanna to prevent the confederates from advancing toward Harrisburg and Philadelphia. This action, perpetrated by ordinary citizens, not the military, was a turning point in the Civil War.

john-q.-denney.jpg

These first-hand accounts are incredible to read, and I love picturing my grandfather as a young man listening to and then transcribing his grandmother’s words. One version he wrote appears to have edits from one of his instructors at Cornell where he was a pre-med student at the time. There is also an outline of the story, complete with an estimated word count, (known in the writing world as a “pitch”) which I suspect was submitted to the same professor.

We can now preserve our stories in multiple ways, but we must tell them, and we must take time to listen to the storytellers. No amount of scholarly research can replace the words of someone who experienced the event, especially if they come from a family member or close friend. First person accounts breathe life into history and put us smack-dab into the realm of a world far removed from the one we live in today.

Last year, for a class, I wrote a piece called “Flight” about Rachel’s Civil War story braided with my own experience fleeing from the TMI meltdown over a hundred years later. It still needs a lot of work, and I hope to revise it with a new writing coach/editor this summer.  I like the feeling of family connection that writing gives me, of sitting down at my own version of the Underwood and continuing the story.

An-Occurrence-at-Wrightsville-Bridge-1 (2)

 

 

Pomp and Circumstance Always Makes Me Cry

The brass fanfare introduction to Pomp and Circumstance raises the hair on my arms and brings an unexpected tear to my eye, every single time. There’s just something about the anticipation of music that’s so familiar it verges on the trite, yet so evocative that it reaches down and pulls on your heartstrings no matter how many times it’s played.

At some point during my teaching career, my colleague and I decided it would be a cool idea to invite the eighth-grade string players to sit in with the high school orchestra when they played for graduation. It became a rite of passage—the seniors dressed in their caps and gowns got up after the last orchestra piece in the prelude to join their classmates in the procession. The eighth-graders, nervous in their black slacks and crisp white shirts, not yet wearing the formal gowns and tuxes of the high school orchestra, would walk onto the football field and sit in the chairs vacated by the seniors. I would wait with them along the sidelines and then get in my car to go home, leaving the windows open so I could hear the opening measures of Pomp, knowing another class of string players was being welcomed into the orchestra, just as the seniors were being welcomed into the world beyond Dallastown. I always left the campus with tears in my eyes, especially the last time, which was six years ago.

The high school orchestra director can only be described as a formidable presence. He is passionate, brilliant, volatile, and was born to wear white tie and tails and stand in front of an orchestra. There is rarely a filter when he speaks. He loves to be in the spotlight and is in his element directing that magnificent graduation orchestra before the biggest audience of the year. He walks out onto the podium on those beautiful early June evenings and you know you are going to hear something incredible. These are high school students playing at a world-class level, thanks to the leadership of this man.

This week would have been the last time he directed the high school orchestra at graduation because he is retiring and moving on to a long-anticipated life of travel and leisure. This was to be his last round of playing Pomp and Circumstance over and over again until all the seniors were on the field. I kept thinking about him, wondering if there would a be a lump in his throat when the final notes of the recessional died away, knowing he would never have to yell about those up-bow triplets again or keep a bag of clothespins nearby to keep music from blowing off the stands. I wondered if all those people in the stadium seats would realize what a legacy he has left in this community. Not only did he inspire students to become music educators, performers and lovers of great music, but he showed all of us, students and colleagues alike, what it means to have high expectations, and that we can play it better than we think we can—that, despite our doubts, those expectations are attainable.

Sadly, my long-time colleague is not going be on the podium for graduation this year due to a sudden and serious health challenge. But I know he will go after it with a vengeance. He’ll make this disease cower in fear of him just like he did that poor kid in the second violins who wasn’t watching and missed the entrance. He will fight and bitch and swear and make the medical people laugh and occasionally want to bang their heads against the wall, just like he did with those of us who worked with him for so many years. He’ll yell until he gets what he wants and ask any administrator–he always gets what he wants.

I assume the eighth graders still join the high school orchestra at graduation and that it  remains a meaningful rite of passage for those young string players. I’m sure the band director will step in and do a spectacular job conducting in difficult circumstances. But graduation in this little community will never be quite the same again without The Maestro on the podium, baton poised and ready, eyes laser-focused on the trumpet section as the first notes of Pomp resonate across the field and the seniors begin their march.

 

 

 

Seen on the Boardwalk

The shops along the boardwalk yawn and stretch, blinking winter-weary eyes at the gradually strengthening sun, raising their metal security doors to welcome another summer onslaught of tourists.  Tables stand ready and waiting at the outdoor cafes with rookie servers anxious for their first customers. Souvenir shops hawk their wares with signs advertising pre-season sales on t-shirts, boogie boards, and caged hermit crabs which will not survive the return trip across the Bay Bridge. There is that top of the roller coaster sense of anticipation, of here-we-go-again—like the optimism of teachers at the beginning of the school year.

What marred this late-spring saunter down the boardwalk for me was seeing those ubiquitous t-shirts with sexually suggestive slogans. I suppose they’re meant to appeal to the high school seniors who will flood the town in the next few weeks, flaunting their pseudo-adulthood by excessive drinking and other forms of debauchery. Tacky t-shirt shops are as much a part of this resort as sunburn and crab cakes, but I found this season’s crop more offensive than usual, and I don’t think it’s because I’m turning into a prudish curmudgeon. Displayed on racks right out on the boardwalk for all to see were shirts with utterly revolting and disgusting words, far worse than the typical “I’m with stupid” underscored by a pointing finger. And, to a one, they were demeaning to women.

I realize that simply talking about them is the whole point. Get attention at all costs. Shock value makes for great publicity and a healthy bottom line for the purveyor of the goods. Who cares if something is not just in poor taste, but is absolute filth or that young children walking the boardwalk with their parents say, “What does that shirt mean, Mommy?” It’s a free country, if you don’t like something displayed in a shop, you can walk by and ignore it. But when it’s placed right in the path of our boardwalk bicycle, taunting us, saying look at what I can get away with printing and selling in my store and you can’t do a thing about it, I am offended. On one hand, we’re preaching kindness and respect for all, and on the other hand, let’s see how far we can go with a sexually explicit t-shirt that values women for nothing more than their body parts. Even if it’s meant as a joke, it’s not a joke. Not anymore.

Oh, come on, they’re just a bunch of cheap shirts in junky stores—they’ll always be there in one form or another, and I suppose no one is harmed by wearing one. But why would someone choose to wear a shirt that makes most of us cringe or turn away in embarrassment? Offensive clothing and bumper stickers are like canker sores growing on our newly formed skin of political correctness—minor annoyances, but their very presence makes me question how deep and resilient that skin actually is. Are the current conversations about sexual harassment and gender equality just lip service? If not, then why are we still selling and buying clothing that makes references to gynecological procedures or are motivated to buy a vehicle from a local car dealer who advertises “Buy a Jeep and get babes?”

I understand the idiotic eighteen-year-old’s need to go over the top and defy his parents, but it’s not just high school graduates gone wild that are buying into this. Sadly, there is still an element who says forget political correctness, this is what I want to wear or paste on my car bumper and just you try and stop me. So, in the name of equality, there should be shirts and bumper stickers with sayings just as offensive to men, but I didn’t see them. Maybe they keep those in the back of the store.

Thoughts at Sixty-Two

What I miss:

  • My parents.
  • Newspapers—yes, I get news faster on my phone but there is nothing like the crinkly Sunday-morning-ness of a big, fat hard-copy newspaper. I know they’re still around but for how long?
  • Weddings held in a house of worship instead of a “venue.”
  • The sublime innocence of schools before mass shootings.
  • Summers working at the Strasburg Railroad.
  • Orioles games with Brian and his mom wearing her bucket hat and baseball sneakers—a die-hard fan if ever there was one.
  • The huge magnolia tree (it’s still there, I checked) in my childhood backyard.
  • A President I can respect, even if I don’t agree with his or her politics.
  • My friend Deb, especially her irreverent sense of humor.
  • The town where I grew up, the way it was when I lived there.
  • My grandmother’s almond cake with bitter chocolate drizzle.

What I love now:

  • Retirement.
  • Writing and occasionally getting a piece published.
  • Technology, even though most days I don’t even know what I don’t know. I love being able to connect with old friends, Google everything, and make calls from my car.
  • Farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Don’t want my fresh fruits and vegetables dropped off by an Amazon drone. Ever.
  • Netflix and Hulu.
  • Singing with the Susquehanna Chorale.
  • SNL skits especially with Keenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon.
  • Wegman’s.
  • Small businesses and personal service. Several times in the last week I had great experiences dealing with real people who were knowledgeable, professional, and kind.
  • Ocean Pines.
  • That we are living in the age of medical miracles. I think about the way my grandfather practiced medicine and how amazed he’d be if he were alive today.
  • The quality and safety of the cars we drive. Anyone miss the vehicles of the 70’s and 80’s?
  • Diversity and acceptance.
  • My pain-free, less crooked back.

What I’m still learning:

  • To be a better singer and a better writer and the realization that I’m not done yet.
  • To grow a productive vegetable garden.
  • That I need an app on my phone to remind me to get out and walk.
  • How to do promotional writing and market a non-profit arts organization in the digital age.
  • To be less violent with my electric toothbrush. My dentist tells me to just let it do its thing and not try to control it. Life lesson, perhaps?
  • That sometimes you have to push back against the prevailing winds and fight for what you believe even when it’s not pretty. That nodding in polite agreement when inside you’re screaming “No, this is just wrong,” is not always the best option.
  • That no matter how much I walk and exercise or try to control my portions, I no longer have the metabolism of a thirty-year-old or even a forty-year-old. Sigh…
  • That the Holy Spirit is leading me somewhere. Thank you, Deacon Jan, for the reminder.
  • To appreciate everyone I meet along the way.