Monday, July 25, 2016

The Cicadas’s Song

When my mom used to euphemistically refer to death as saying "bye-bye" someday, my response was always "but not yet.” We had a little call and response thing going. I thought of it as a bit of a negotiation, only to learn that I was merely being humored in that conceit.

I am in the town that I grew up in, perhaps for the last time. There are no more parents to visit save in the graveyard, soon there will be no childhood home. I am here for the unveiling of my mother's tombstone. In the Jewish tradition an unveiling happens approximately one year after a person dies and uses the Jewish calendar to determine when that is. Although my mother died on the Fourth of July, on the Jewish calendar it is actually July 23rd this year. Why so different?

It turns out that the current year on the Jewish calendar is a leap year, the Hebrew term actually means "a pregnant year.” Periodically they add days to catch up and assure that holidays fall at the proper season. The year following my mother's death has indeed felt pregnant, laden with meaning, heavy and transformational, as I integrate her physical absence with a new understanding of her emotional presence. I didn't have to think of it when I had her here, occupying space on this earth, yet with her physical absence I am oddly much more aware of her presence. It is a comforting weight I carry within me, the weight of nineteen days, perhaps the weight of a lifetime.

I find that I am not only saying goodbye to my mother, but I am saying goodbye to the town I grew up in, to friends with whom I renewed friendships, to my childhood home and to a part of my history. In the intervening years since my father died, I have made regular trips to see my mother, reconnecting with the community as I created new memories with my mother. Now I am leaving both of my parents in a cemetery 500 miles away from where I live. They are surrounded by many of the people we knew growing up, a roster of familiar names. The lady who lived down the hill from our home now lies in the ground down the hill from their tombstone. There is an odd symmetry that has been maintained. They are in good company.

We arrived at the cemetery on a blistering hot day. At the back of the cemetery my parents' tombstone was wrapped in a blue tarp. We have a small immediate family, my parents' three children, two grandchildren, two great grandsons. My husband and several friends completed our gathering. Our family is spread around the country, planes and often lengthy drives deposited us at this plot of ground where our parents now reside. The two young children brought a certain leavening to the occasion as the youngest threw himself over the tombstone, almost as if he were climbing into my mother's lap. "She would have liked that," I thought. I remembered her holding him as a newborn at a Thanksgiving just two years earlier.

My niece spoke movingly of my mother's honesty and kindness, traits that captured her well. She was an authentic person, honest to the core and the embodiment of kindness. The rabbi had us pause in silent prayer as a chorus of cicadas filled the silence with song. My niece helped her young nephews remove the tarp, walking around the tombstone as she tugged the duct tape loose. Meanwhile I stood there in silent prayer, praying that the text and dates would be correct, sighing in relief as the carved stone emerged without error.

We placed small stones upon the tombstone, another Jewish tradition, representing our presence and love. Next to the stones, my niece placed a cicada shell she had found on the tarp. She remembered my mother, a nature lover, finding cicada shells with her and her sister on nature walks. Cicadas live underground as nymphs, often at depths of 8 feet. When they mature they emerge from underground, shedding their intact shell, often leaving it clinging to a tree. Interestingly they are a symbol of immortality. Yet more symmetries. Shell above, shell below, preserved in memory, deeply embedded in each of us.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

From Ironing to Shooting Hoops

"Are you a women's libber?" he asked in a rather challenging tone. I was a young woman in college in the 1970s. This young man, beer in hand, approached me at a party with what was either a new pick up line or a way to screen out troublesome women. "Absolutely" I replied and he soon faded away to look for more receptive prey.

That was the first time I voiced my identification as a feminist. I had a deeply developed sense of fairness, perhaps a middle child trait as us middles have to fight for what is our due. I didn't have a clear plan for my future back then, but marriage and children were not high on my list. While that wasn't the life I imagined, I didn't know exactly what my alternatives were. The truth is that at that time there weren't many well-charted paths for women except the rather stereotypical ones. I grew up with employment ads in the newspaper that had headings that read "Help wanted female" and "Help wanted male" and the female jobs were not very interesting. It wasn't until 1973 that the Supreme Court ruled that illegal, just two years before I finished college.

"Don't iron while the strike is hot". That was the slogan of the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1969, one of the first big demonstrations of the Women’s Liberation movement. It came on the fiftieth anniversary of women getting the vote. I remember it because I was sitting at the kitchen table watching the protest on our little red portable TV as my mother ironed. "Mommmm...don't iron while the strike is hot," I admonished. "Then whose going to do the ironing?" she shot back as she spritzed my father's white shirt with water.
Those memories came back to me recently as I watched my twelve year old granddaughter shoot baskets. She has just begun to lengthen into a legginess that makes her look just right as she crouches and shoots for the basket. "What sports did you play when you were my age?" she asked.

I loved the innocence of her question even as it made me realize what a sea change it represented. "We didn't really have sports for girls back then," I replied, suddenly feeling very ancient. Title IX was not passed until 1972 barring discrimination in federally funded education programs. Girls might be enrolled in dance or acrobatics outside of school, but in high school the options were cheerleading and the pom pom squad. I found my yearbook online and flipped to Athletics. I quickly confirmed that boys' sports included track, football, swimming, basketball, wrestling, tennis, golf and baseball. At the back was a group photo of the Boys Athletic Association with names of participants listed. The last photo was titled Girls Athletic Association and had two anonymous girls playing tennis, apparently an association so poorly organized and limited that they didn't warrant a group shot or names.

When I was in college I worked in a credit bureau in the summer of 1974. It was my first off-campus job and I liked being part of the work world. While there I learned something about women and credit. I remember a couple whose record was in the files, she was a teacher and her husband a student. Their credit was surely based on her income as he had none, yet it was in his name. When they divorced, their credit information was divided and he retained the credit history. I swore that was never going to happen to me. What I didn't realize was that up until that time the deck would have been stacked against me. Later in 1974 the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) changed the way credit-granting decisions were made. 

Prior to the ECOA, credit for a married couple was in the man's name. Women often met with resistance when attempting to establish credit in their own name with unmarried women required to supply a male to cosign for them. The importance of women in making laws such as the ECOA should not be understated. We have Congresswoman Lindy Boggs to thank for adding the provision banning discrimination due to sex or marital status. She added the language and then told the committee "Knowing the members composing this committee as well as I do, I'm sure it was just an oversight that we didn't have 'sex' or 'marital status' included. I've taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee's approval."

My mother had returned to college and graduated as a teacher when I began college. She had her own income for the first time since she had provided the support while my father attended college. I recall she and my dad went to the bank to get a car loan so she could drive to her teaching job each day. They did it on my dad's credit. My mother turned to the bank officer and asked if she would have gotten the loan without my dad. Where did that come from? My sweet ironing mother was not a confrontational person. The bank officer hemmed and hawed as my mother's anger built. She felt patronized by both the bank officer and my dad. She was still furious when she told me about it in our weekly phone call, her fury enhanced no doubt by my father teasing in the background. I liked this side of her. My mother was coming out of the shadows and I was cheering her on.

When I was planning to marry in 1975, I was uneasy. I'd observed how married women were subsumed into their husband's identity. I bristled every time a newly married couple turned to face the wedding attendees and were introduced as Mr and Mrs John Doe, the bride losing even the dignity of a first name. "Not me", I swore even as it seemed that I was the only one who was bothered by that indignity. The idea of changing my name made my stomach churn. I advised my then fiancĂ© that I would be keeping my own name.  He wasn't too sure how he felt about it at first. I walked him through the experience most women faced. "Imagine you were referred to as Mr Jane Doe," I said. I give him credit, he understood it immediately and after that became my staunchest defender.

I printed it on our wedding invitation -"the bride is retaining her maiden name". That raised a few eyebrows. It was one thing to do it, but another to be public about it. While keeping one's name became increasingly common in the 1970s, it then became less so and only now is seeing a resurgence.  As for me, some years later we split up and in time we both remarried. I don't recall it even being a discussion in my current marriage, and as for my former husband, his new wife kept her name also. I took some measure of pride in that. I'd trained him well.

It amazes me to think that when the teenage me sat in the kitchen and watched that 1969 protest, it was only 50 years since women got the vote. Now it is almost fifty years since that protest. Laws passed in the 1970s were important in changing women's lives, my life, making the world conform to the standards of fairness that I perhaps naively expected. By the time I finished college in 1975, the world had slowly begun to change. Young women today would find it ridiculous to have gender segregated want ads, to have credit only available to men or to not have the ability to participate in sports. 

The discrimination today is more subtle, but it is still very present. The expectations of how women "should" behave are certainly reflected in the responses we've witnessed in our political arena when women are considered shrill if they raise their voice. I am dismayed when I hear young women disavow feminism or indicate their belief that we no longer have discrimination or that electing female politicians is irrelevant. I think of that young woman who observed those early injustices and so often swore "not me", whose life was affected for the better by female politicians like Lindy Boggs and I know we are nowhere close to done.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Holiday Tradition

My family seems to sync with holidays. My brother was born on St Patrick's Day, my sister's birthday often hits Thanksgiving and I claim Halloween and Election Day. When I was a child my mother used to make little witches for my birthday parties with Tootsie Roll heads and a crepe paper skirt under which was hidden a cup with a stash of candy corn. I never really identified with Halloween, but as an adult I often spent my birthday doorknocking for my Presidential candidate. I must admit those holiday associations do make it easier to recall family birthdays.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that my parents, who missed out on that birthday tradition, claimed their holidays in death. My father whose name was Phil chose the holiday of his namesake Punxsutawney Phil, Groundhog's Day, and my mother very appropriately chose the Fourth of July, appropriately because in life she loved flags and her country.
Last July we were doing the death vigil at this time of year. I never fully comprehended that being on one's death bed is more than a turn of phrase. I had come down to Illinois to visit my mother for what turned into an unexpected wait for her demise. It had an air of unreality to it, but as the Fourth of July approached, I knew that would be her departure date. 

When I used to go for drives with my mother and we passed American flags waving in the wind, she would point them out in delight. She put flags in her planters, on her wall where she hung the things that spoke to her and of course on my father's grave.
On her wall she also had a photo of the Statue of Liberty and often spoke of how happy she was that she was born in America where she could get an education. Her mother had been born in the Ukraine where she was not educated, something that had always saddened my mother. My mother had loved learning and going back to college as an adult had been a highlight of her life. She associated that gift with being an American. The Fourth of July is a happy holiday to associate with her, a celebration of things she held dear.

I used to think of my mom as being a bit Pollyanna. In addition to loving flags, her country, and education, she lit up around children and frequently summoned us to our kitchen window to see a bird or a sunset. She didn't have a jaded bone in her body. My father called her The Original Innocent, perhaps because she had a purity of spirit, a genuine joy in the world around her that us more jaded souls have a harder time summoning. 

I have a picture of her in my mind that is associated not with the flag, but with another Fourth of July tradition, fireworks. I had taken her on a trip to Barcelona. We stayed in a hotel on the Ramblas that overlooked a Miro mosaic, a circle set into the pavement. At night the fire swallowers would come out and position themselves on it, drawing a crowd until we would hear the DA-da DA-da of the police coming to disperse them. Our balcony gave us a front row seat. 

That evening we had already had our floor show of fire swallowers when we heard a noise and my mother returned to the balcony to see what it was. As she stood there in her nightgown, we realized it was the opening volley of a fireworks show from a nearby street. I picture her in her nighty, her face illuminated with the light from the fireworks and an expression of pure delight.

As I watch fireworks this Fourth of July, I think I will hold that image close, her looking at the world with joy, illuminated in its glow.