She Who Must Be Obeyed

She sits there in the middle of the kitchen island, resplendent in her trendy stainless-steel garments. She is the Queen, without whom no one is fed, and she expects to be treated with adulation and reverence or else she’ll turn on you at a moment’s notice. Like her mother before her, she is demanding and requires high maintenance at the most inopportune times.

“Put in a downdraft oven,” they told us when we built our home in the late 90’s. “Such a clean look with no more ugly vent hoods,” they said, but no one mentioned the feeble ventilation that would leave our upstairs bedroom smelling of sautéed garlic and onions. For days.

This one comes by it honestly. Her mother was a Jenn-Air, an appliance family known for its crankiness, and she demanded constant attention from the day she arrived. “I want a new motherboard, I want a new fan, I want another motherboard, I want a new control panel, and you will recut the damn granite before I go back in that slot to cook Christmas dinner.” Three months later she sighed and said, “That’s it. I’m done. Find someone else to slog away in this hell hole.”

The appliance gurus told us we had only two options because they’re not making  many downdraft ovens anymore. (Duh…I wonder why?)  The coronation of Queen Kitchenaid required the granite to be cut yet again to meet her just slightly different dimensions. “Here’s what I expect,” she told us upon arrival. “I will take as long as I want to preheat and if you complain, I will take even longer. My skin is delicate, so don’t you dare splatter me with that dreadful acidic tomato sauce or nick me with one of those horrid cast iron pots you insist on using or I will be scarred for life. My burners have two options—scorching high or non-existent. I don’t believe in a slow simmer. You will cut a new hole in the floor to align my fan with the vent because I don’t have the same plumbing as my mother, thank God. And as far as cleaning, I require a spa-like water bath for several hours and then I want to see you on your hands and knees with a scrunge. Mom put up with that abusive high-heat cleaning business, but I will have no parts of that. We’re now environmentally correct, you know.”

The other appliances, sigh and roll their eyes. They are ever faithful servants, working without the slightest complaint since 1997. They’re not fancy, still clad in their black plastic coats, trendy at the time. The dishwasher has a dial instead of digital controls and can be rather noisy but never asks for anything. The frig is equally loyal, partly because he knows that when he dies, there will be no unit now available to fit in his space. They feel sorry for us because of having to deal with the Queen.

We’ve had about four years of peaceful coexistence. I tend to her as she wishes to the best of my ability. But recently, I’ve been hearing pre-heating complaints. An odd screech here and there and then it disappears. Ah, just like that strange noise in the car—turn up the radio so you don’t hear it. Perhaps something’s loose, I tell myself. If it was anything major, it wouldn’t go away, right? Until this afternoon when the occasional screech turned into a full on she’s-going-to-blow-Captain Kirk-rattle which didn’t stop until I turned off the oven. Of course, her timing is perfect—right before bake sale and holiday cooking season.

Google informed me that it was probably some kind of bearing in one of the fans that had worked loose or broken. Are you kidding me? After barely four years of playing by all her rules, she pulls this kind of crap? I gave her a time out to think about her choices for a few minutes and then hit the preheat button again, bracing for a return of that horrible grating noise. This time she complied, and grudgingly allowed me to finish my baking project. “OK,” she said, “Since you already have the chocolate melted, you may finish for today, but nothing else. I just haven’t been feeling like myself lately, and I think I need to see a specialist, preferably soon. Or else you can just forget about Thanksgiving.”

The Road to Paradise

This fall, the Strasburg Railroad’s Facebook page has been filled with pictures of the Norfolk and Western’s locomotive 611. This glorious engine, in service in the 1950’s and the last of its kind, has been in temporary residence at Strasburg for several weeks and has generated much excitement among rail-fans along with some truly spectacular photography. If my Dad were alive, he would have been camped there for the duration. Seeing the almost daily posts brought back fond memories of my years working at Strasburg.

My father was obsessed with trains, so when I was looking for a summer job in college (one stint as a restaurant dishwasher was enough) he got me a job at Strasburg. I started as the “information desk girl” handing out brochures and giving directions to tourists in those pre-Google maps days, but eventually became the railroad’s first female ticket agent. I learned to sell tickets efficiently, count money, and deal with people on vacation. I loved it all and stayed for twenty years.

Harry Myers SburgIn those days, most of our transactions were in cash. If I worked the late shift, I often walked to my car carrying bags containing five-figure amounts of money which I dropped off at the night depository at the bank on the square. One of my co-workers, a crusty old codger named Harry Myers, would always sit on his front stoop in the evening, smoking a cigarette, waiting for my car to go by so he knew I had gotten the money safely to the bank. Of course, Harry was also famous for telling little boys who anxiously rushed to the ticket window in search of the bathroom, “Here, kid, put a rubber band around it.”

Many of my co-workers were teachers and other professionals, some of whom came from miles away, just to work around steam trains on the weekend. We called ourselves the most highly educated minimum wage work force in Lancaster County. Although I did not share my father’s passion for trains, I could appreciate it. At one time, the lockbox holding the change bags for the weekend was located in a hidden corner of the engine house. Walking in there in the early morning quiet and hearing the locomotive that had been running the day before gradually cooling down was almost like being around a live creature resting in its stall, a gentle giant made of steel and powered by a heart of coal.

Gregg, Bill, SburgThe men I worked with were characters. One of them frequently told kids fascinated by the fly-encrusted strips hanging in the station that that’s what was used to make shoo-fly pies. A gentleman who worked as a brakeman well into his 90’s, would come off the train, and with a deadpan expression say, “You know, it’s snowing hard down in Paradise.” One of the conductors would linger by the ticket window and glance at people’s wallets and driver’s licenses as they paid. Then he’d get them on the train and “guess” their name and where they were from. Occasionally after a customer had left the window, one of my fellow ticket agents would sniff the air with a pained look on his face, shake his head in disgust and say, “Campers.”

After my dad retired, he volunteered at the State Railroad Museum across the street.  He would come over to the grill for lunch and always stopped by the ticket window just to say hello, or if we were swamped, he’d bring me food. He loved that we were both working together around steam trains.

 

 

These days I’m sure very little cash changes hands since most tickets are probably purchased online.  A new generation of train crew, ticket agents, and administrative staff keeps the trains running on time. But the wooden station is still there as I suspect are the pot-bellied stove and hanging fly strips. The same locomotives that were in service when I was there are still making those daily 45-minute round trips because no digital experience can ever replicate the wide-eyed wonder of a small child staring up at a locomotive for the first time. No amusement park thrill ride can touch scrambling up the coach steps clutching your grandpa’s hand, plopping down on the velvet seats and sticking your head out the window, breathing in the coal smoke and listening for the sound of the whistle on the road to Paradise.

Me on Strasburg train

 

 

 

Touching the Liberty Bell

A former teaching colleague posted a picture on Facebook recently that simply took my breath away. I am not reproducing it here, although I did share it on my Facebook page. My friend was chaperoning a group of middle schoolers on a trip to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. One of the students was blind and also had significant hearing impairment. The park ranger lifted the ropes around the Liberty Bell, so the young man could touch it, while he explained its meaning and history away from the noise of the crowded hall. My friend said it was a moving and powerful moment in a day filled with the general chaos of taking young adolescents who are too cool for their clothes on a field trip.

What the ranger did was beyond kindness. He broke the rules for all the right reasons. This picture symbolized the good in us; it represented what I always believed we are called to be as citizens of this country and as decent human beings.

When I started this blog, I was determined to stay out of politics, religion, and other inflammatory topics. There is way, way too much of that on social media, and I didn’t need to go there to flex my writing muscles. But I am in utter disbelief at what we are allowing to happen. I am not talking about specific issues—our country has had bitter political disagreements for its entire history. The fact that we have the freedom to argue and disagree with each other is part of why we’ve survived for as long as we have.

But we are now deep into uncharted territory and quite frankly, I’m frightened. Lies are being told and laws are being broken with few, if any, repercussions, and we seem to have become blithely accepting of that. For the life of me, I cannot understand how our leaders can continue to condone and rationalize behavior that is not only illegal but downright evil all in the name of retaining power. Those people who say this is how Hitler got the job done have a valid point. And just when I think it can’t get any worse—OK, so this time a line’s been crossed and they’re going to have to do something—it does, and the voices of support roar ever louder.

What would happen if we all stepped away from the chaos and shouting for a few minutes, slipped past the ropes of our individual agendas and placed our hands on the Liberty Bell to remind us of who we are, how we got here and where we’re going?

 

 

Southern Snapshot

We just returned from a pleasure trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a beautiful town filled with stunning architecture, history, and restaurants with some of the best chefs on the East Coast. We enjoyed it all—from our charming hotel in the historic district to the incredible food to walking the sacred grounds of history. Nothing on our screens can ever replace travel and being there in person.

We took the first ferry of the day to Fort Sumter so we could see the flag-raising. A group of students, probably early high school age, were on the boat with us. They quieted as they lined up on either side of the flag, carefully unfolding it according to the ranger’s directions. Another student pulled the ropes to raise it into the stiff breeze blowing over the harbor. The students represented many different races and nationalities and seeing their hands working together on the flag in that particular place at this particular time in history gave me at least a whisper of hope.

We took a day trip to Beaufort because I wanted to visit the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Pat Conroy was writing creative nonfiction in the form of popular novels long before it was recognized as a genre, and Beaufort is the place he called home. The quintessential southern town, Beaufort is filled with stately mansions, waterfront cottages and streets lined with live oaks dripping with moss. Scenes from  The Big Chill, Forest Gump, and Conroy’s own Prince of Tides were all filmed here.  (Barbra Streisand was stopped by the local police who did not recognize her when she sped down the highway in the white Mustang from Prince of Tides, without a driver’s license or registration.)

Beaufort scene

When we arrived, we asked two gentlemen lounging in hammocks with a case of Coors between them, if they knew anything about the Pat Conroy tours advertised online. One of them said, “Oh yeah, that’s Bill.  Lemme’ see if I have his number.” Bill re-arranged his day so he could take us on the tour. He couldn’t have been more gracious and knowledgeable and incorporated scenes from the movies on a screen in his van with what we were seeing outside the windows. He took us to Pat Conroy’s grave which is in a Gullah cemetery. Conroy spent a year teaching the Gullah children on Daufuskie Island (the basis for his book, The Water is Wide) and felt a deep connection to its people. Conroy is the only white person buried in that cemetery, and according to Bill, the decision by the church council to allow it was not unanimous. The grave itself is covered with pine cones and all kinds of random items—pens and pencils because he wrote all his books by hand, flowers, shells, and buttons and even a few miniature bottles of Jack Daniels.

Conroy grave

When you visit this part of the country, race is the elephant in the room. As you listen to the stories, you realize how much of our country’s growth and prosperity was built on the backs of slaves. I kept wondering if the tour narratives have evolved over the years. Everything is explained in accurate, but carefully chosen language. Nowhere did we see a confederate flag, even in the  trinket stalls of the City Market. And has that changed even more since the terrible shooting in 2015?

I felt almost uncomfortable with the deferential service offered by the African American men and women who served us breakfast in the hotel each morning.  Do the women who weave sweet-grass baskets in the markets and along the roadside do it out of pride for their heritage or because it’s an incredible money-maker with the tourists? Probably a little of both, I suppose. I couldn’t help but see the irony as a black security guard stood outside the museum with “Daughters of the Confederacy” inscribed in the archway above the door.

One of our last visits was to Boone Hall Plantation, located a few miles outside Charleston. (More irony – the cotton dock of the plantation, where slaves were once unloaded, is now an upscale event venue where the actress Blake Lively was married.) In front of one of the slave cabins, a gifted black actress and singer gave a presentation on the Gullah culture. She interwove her narrative with spirituals and reflections on the life of the slaves on that plantation. At the end she said the Lord’s Prayer in the Gullah dialect and then sang about how beautiful all of the faces seated in front of her were. I didn’t understand all of her words, but I didn’t need to, because she looked every single one of us in the eye as she kept singing over and over, “…and you, and you and you.”

slave-quarters-1499121__480

 

The Oldest People in the Water

That would be my husband and me. We’re in the ocean alongside the kids on boogie boards, the teenagers hot dogging way out in the breakers, and the young parents steering toddlers around  the shallows at the edge of the beach. I still love to get in the ocean. I am cautious, especially with a reconstructed back, and stay close to shore, but I am not too old to enjoy being immersed in the water and feeling the shifting sand under my feet. I like the sticky clean-ness of salt against my skin. I like waiting and watching for the next wave, even if it means an occasional head-over-heels toss into the surf. I like how the ocean decides how much of you is going to get wet when an unexpected wave washes over the part of you that’s still dry and warm.

We are reaching the age when some of us tend to stay on the beach and out of the water. I refuse to do that until I absolutely must. If my body says, “OK, let’s go,” I’m in. I’m not yet ready to succumb to fear, at least not at the beach. There’s enough to be legitimately afraid of in this world over which we have no control, but I’m not ready to give up some of the things I love because of what might happen. I refuse to live my life based on what-ifs.

I’m reminded of the meme that occasionally spins by on my Facebook feed—something about life is short, go ahead and eat the cake. I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the finger-wagging or the latest article about what food or activity is going to kill us next. Danger lurks in the plastic water bottle or the deli meat or the hamburger cooked rare, and that may be at least partially true, but I’m sorry, no health risk warrants a pizza crust made from cauliflower crumbs. Preying on our fears, especially as we age, has spawned an entire industry. Don’t eat this, don’t drink that, what if I fall, what if this or that happens, I better not risk it, or I better buy this product to prevent it from happening.

I am well aware that I don’t have the same physical capabilities I did twenty years ago. I think I usually make sensible choices based on that knowledge, but I’m not going to limit myself if it means missing out on the good stuff. So, yeah, I’m going to swim those laps in the pool even though every year it takes a little longer. I’m going to enjoy every bite of the occasional indulgent dessert despite my slowing metabolism and only eat pizza with a real crust, carbs be damned. I’m going to risk sending my essays off to publications that will probably shoot them right into the slush pile, because once in a while, there will be an acceptance which will feel amazing. And I’m going to keep swimming in the ocean, letting the sights, sounds, and smells of the sea remind me how wonderful it is to be alive.

 

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.