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“All men are children and of one family. The sun sends them off to bed and wakes them in the morning.”
Henry David Thoreau – Walden
“Each man beareth upon him the entire stamp of the human condition.”
Michel de Montaigne – Essays
The 16th Century Montaigne was the “inventor” of the essay form, and his writing is considered the basis of French thought. I agree with him that we all partake of the same human condition. We are all variations on the same theme, so to speak. However, there are people who either because of their personalities, deeds or circumstances stand out in my memory.
During our travels, Bill and I have met many interesting people. I think of these brief, but memorable, encounters where our paths chanced to meet as “convergences.”
ECCENTRICS HAVE MORE FUN!
I admire the character in Jenny Joseph’s “Warning” in which she asserts that when she’s an old woman she’ll wear a purple dress and a red hat, gobble up all the samples at the grocery and spend her pension on brandy, summer gloves and satin sandals to make up for the sobriety of her youth.
Eccentrics are never boring. They march to their own drummer and are perfectly willing to let others do the same. Often they have the gift of laughter. They are enthusiasts and rejoice in flouting convention. They never say to me, “Oh Rose Mary!” in the smug, disapproving , patronizing tone of voice that I interpret as meaning, “How could you possibly think that or be so impractical. Surely, you don’t mean what you’re saying.”
A beloved Irvington resident was a brilliant woman who had taught biology at Shortridge High School. Many people were the delighted recipients of her oatmeal cookies – “So healthy you know!”
She was a birder par excellence who took a couple of generations of children bird-watching along Pleasant Run Creek. One summer day I met her as she trudged along dressed in a long brown coat, had and muffler, I said, “You look so hot!” “I am hot, but one must cover up so as not to frighten the birds.”
When she was volunteered for Meals on Wheels she never missed a delivery. People finally wondered how she accomplished this without a car. She walked her route! When she died many regretted her passing.
When I was a girl once in a while I’d see an erect, nattily attired gentleman dress in Panama hat, black suit, white shirt and spats sedately stroll up Franklin St. “Mom, Mom!” I’d yell, “Here comes Cousin Harry.”
“Oh no!” Mother would moan. As he drew near, one saw that Harry’s shirt had yellowed with age, that the suit was frayed and missing buttons and that his high-top shoes had seen better days.
Harry was a first-class moocher who came for lunch and stayed for days. He carried socks and underwear in his briefcase – just in case. When he visited us, he descended on us en prince as the French say. He expected to be waited on and did not deign to thank people for their hospitality. My father’s sister, an eccentric herself, put him up for months at a time. After a disagreement, he wrote a letter threatening never to darken her door again. Her reply was succinct: “Goodbye!”
For a while, Harry was Uncle Si, a radio personality who told jokes on the level of why did the chicken cross the road? Later he eked out a modest living by traveling around central Indiana via the Central Swallow Bus, selling magazine subscriptions to physicians and others to supplement his moistest inheritance.
Dad said that Harry had always been odd. Fancying himself quite a dandy, Harry brushed his hair into a pompadour. As a hazing prank, the boys at Wabash College shaved a streak down the middle of his head. That ended Harry’s college career.
Harry lived in a cluttered apartment in an old brick house a block away from the Riley house in Main St. in Greenfield. His table was set for eight people, and most of the dishes were dirty. Mother thought that
rather like the guests at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice In Wonderland he moved from place to place and had a grand washing up when all of the dishes were dirty.
Back in the days when farm people came to town on Saturday to buy staples and sell their produce, a couple always went to the Kroger store where my sister, Beverly, worked to sell their eggs. Fascinated by the lady’s face that was as white as a Geisha’s, Beverly finally asked the lady what she used for make-up. She used white shoe polish and moistened red crepe paper to use for rouge.
One Saturday a friend and I thought that her head looked rather odd. Upon closer examination, we realized that she had used a brassiere to tie her hair back. During the summertime, the husband was always barefoot and had manure between his toes. They always seemed happy and had a twinkle in their eyes. Their eccentricities harmed no one.
One Saturday he went into the store and said, “Got no eggs today,”
“Why not?” the store manager asked.
“Wa-a-l it was like this: I thought I’d be cure an’ throw an egg at
th’ Missus. She threw one back, and purty soon we-uns was in the biggest egg fight you ever seen. We busted ever one of them dern eggs!
I think that I’ve been a sober, frugal and non-disruptive citizen during the seventy-plus years that I’ve lived. I haven’t given anyone much grief and I’ve done mostly what society expected of me, but I’m beginning to feel an itch. I want to become a frivolous, satin-shoes-and-summer-gloves person. I’d like to have a red nightgown, Fannie Mae chocolates, good Champagne every day, and the nerve to dress exactly as I please.
PROUD TO BE A WOMAN
“You’ve come a long way baby, to get where you’ve got to today!”
Virginia Slims cigarette ad
Baby, women didn’t get to where we are today by accident. It took years of contentious struggle involving a two-pronged effort to get the franchise and to control the alcoholism that damaged many families. Women couldn’t vote or control their own property. There was virtually a saloon on every corner where the politi-al deals were made.
My friend, Sarah Ward, wrote a book about Lillian Stevens, one of the founders of the temperance movement. During the late 1800’s, Stevens visited an official to urge him to enforce alcohol laws. He pulled his hat over his eyes, put his feet on his desk, ate an orange and said that it was none of her business. She said, “I shall make it my business to defeat you; and the time will surely come when you will be sorry you did not remove your hat, take your feet from your desk and offer me half the orange.” She trampled through plowed fields to line up the votes of males, and after his defeat he apologized.
During the 90th anniversary of the passage of the suffrage amendment, I received several emailed pages of capsule biographies and photographs of suffragettes. There they are, some of the women whom I consider my spiritual ancestresses and upon whose shoulders every modern American female has stood. They were derided, considered a bunch of nuts, jailed, and abused because they demonstrated.
On November 15, 1917, the warden ordered forty prison guards at a Virginia workhouse to teach jailed suffragists a lesson. Wielding clubs, they went on a rampage against 33 women who’d been convicted of obstructing sidewalk traffic.
They chained Lucy Burns’ hands to the bars above her head and left her hanging overnight. Here’s sweet-faced Dora Lewis, wearing a be-flowered hat. They hurled her into a cell and smashed her head against an iron bed, knocking her out cold. Her cellmate thought that she had suffered a heart attack.
During a hunger strike, they forced a tube down Alice Paul’s nose and poured liquid into her until she vomited. She was tortured for weeks until word was smuggled to the press. President Woodrow Wilson and his cronies tried to have her declared insane. The psychiatrist bravely refused.
This all happened a long time ago in the era of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Women have so much personal freedom today that the past may seem irrelevant. However, the past still exists in many countries. I am so fortunate to be an American woman.
Many women say that they aren’t interested in argumentative issues like politics and government. Just think what the temperance and suffrage advocates accomplished because they were involved in something larger than their own comfortable lives, because they bravely spoke out. Granted, prohibition didn’t last, but at least some control was established over alcohol.
It bothers me when women trivialize the lives and interests of other women, saying, “Thank goodness my friends are men!” I invited several women friends to a party where each one spike about a suffragist and proposed a champagne toast in her honor. (I toasted Lillian Stevens with water!) My friends make me proud both of our ancestresses and of modern women,
I wish I’d known Doris Haddock who walked from California to Washington, D.C. when she was 88 to promote campaign finance reform. She said, “Democracy isn’t just something you have. It’s something you do!” Right on sister!
A VERY SPECIAL PERSON
“You may have tangible wealth untold, caskets of gold. Richer than me you can never be – I had a mother who read to me.
Strickland Gillian – “The Reading Mother”
Born in 1899, my mother’s love of literature was fueled by Old Granny who read to her and my Uncles by the hour. Her heart’s desire was to become educated, but when she finished the eighth grade and mentioned attending high school, my grandfather who was himself a teacher, said that she’d have to support herself. She often said, “To me, Heaven will be a place where I’ll sit at the feet of scholars and get the education I never had.”
Education was not compulsory, so Mother did housework at the home of a Knightstown physician and married when she was sixteen years old. She bore seven children, two of whom did not survive, and was often hungry during the Great Depression. She became a floral designer after my father lost his eyesight and baby-sat many evening to help me attend college.
After my father’s death, she married Edgar Wallace of New Castle and was never poor again, although she lived as if she were, much to the irritation of her children. She dearly loved bacon, but she was so frugal that she cut a pound of bacon into three parts, used one for bean seasoning and fried the other two a couple of slices at a time. “Mother,” we’d say, “You can afford to eat a pound of bacon every day if you want to!” She feard the Depresson might return, and she wanted to leave her children “a little something” and enough to bury her.
Mother believed that to be a true Christian you had to accept all people, regardless of their race, creed or nationality. She continued to grown in her sense of humanity until her death. After breaking her hip, she told me, “You know, two gay men live behind me. I didn’t approve of gay people. I changed my mind when those fellows brought me food, checked on me and did little chores for me. I have seen the errors of my ways. If Christ accepts all people, then I must.” She was mist upset by racial prejudice. “Some folks will be mighty surprised if they make it to Heaven and discover God is black!”
This woman with only an eighth-grade education could recite whole poems. A favorite was “Abou Ben Adhem” about Ibrahim son of Adhem, a Muslim saint who received a warning from God and gave up his throne during the 8th Century. He became a mystic and a nomadic wanderer, working to earn his keep.
From the time I was a little child until her death she recited it to me, and it shaped my feelings about prejudice and the need to accept all kinds of people. Here’s the poem that Leigh Hunt, a friend of Keats and Shelley, wrote about Ben Adhem.
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An Angel writing in a book of gold:
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?” The vision raised its head,
And with a look made all of sweet accord
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“A is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,
Replied the Angel. Abou spike more low,
But cheerily still; and said, “I pray thee then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow men.”
The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And, lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest!
THE MAN WHO CAN’T GO HOME
Bill and I befriended Vadel shortly after 9/11 when he was thirty years old and a clerk at a gas station. A customer cursed Vadel whose skin is the color of café’ au lait and told him to go back where he came from.
Vadel calls me his American mom and loves to talk politics with “Mr. Bill.” Our acquaintance opened a window onto a world that has little in common with my Indiana background. His native land has a very different terrestrial “address” from the shade trees, cornfields, and small town of rural Indiana where I grew up or the big city where I cur-rently live.
He comes from the Islamic Republic of Mauritania – Land of the Moors – located in northwest Africa near Algeria. It lies within the great Sahara Desert that receives only five inches of rain a year and encom- passes 3,500,000 square miles and stretches 3,000 miles from the Atlan-tic to the Red Sea.
When I first met Vadel, I envisioned the stiff of romance: sand dunes, tents, camels and caravans; veiled, mysterious women and sheiks in flowing robes; oases and date palms – all burning under a relentless sun during the day and chilling under a vast, star-filled sky at night. The romance is there , all right, but so is a reality that includes a dictatorial government, poverty, various exotic diseases, and a life expectancy of sixty-one compared with nearly eighty in the U.S.
Longing for his mother and his homeland and enticed with the offer of a government job, Vadel returned home three years ago. I thought that we’d never see him again. One night he called; “Hi, Mom, I’m back. I quit my job because I didn’t like the system.” After the obligatory round of courtesies inquiring about each other’s relative, I asked him when he was going to settle down and get married. “Ah, but that is my big news, Mom. I am married, and we are expecting a child.”
“Gracious! Is your wife with you?”
“No, she must remain in Mauritania to take care of my mother who is ill.” He explained that one has one’s mother only for a while, but a wife for a ling time. He went back to work and attended college. He left again and occasionally calls from Senegal where he is spending a few months with his wife and baby in a house he owns there.
Perhaps you wonder why he doesn’t return to Mauritania. He can’t go home. Vadel is a revolutionary, albeit a peaceful one. “No guns, Rose, and absolutely no communism.” His father, an Islamic scholar, was murdered, and one of his uncles was executed because he was involved in an unsuccessful coup d état.
When we were in France a few years ago I had a long telephone conversation with his brother who’s a professor there. He said, “Vadel’s problem is that he can’t keep his mouth shut.”
GULFS TOO BROAD TO BRIDGE
Vadel invited us to have lunch. He was dressed in Mauritanian garb, a flowing, open-sided white tunic worn over a shirt and pants, a long black scarf around his neck and sandals on his bare feet.
When we entered his apartment, I was surprised for a minute to see only a bed, a bookcase, with a television, and a set of gym equipment. He told me that he worked out at home because he could not go to the “Y.” When I asked why not, he replied that he would not undress in front of others. Modesty is a prime trait of Muslims.
In many countries people do not sit at tables and chairs as we do. I have seen many pictures of both Sheiks and Nomads sitting on oriental rugs. Knowing his preference, I always indicate the floor with a sweep of my hand, and that is where he usually sits in our home.
We followed Vadel’s example in his home by removing our shoes. “Sit however you please, as we would do in Mauritania – like this,” he said and demonstrated by first sitting cross-legged on the floor and then reclining on his side as the Romans did at banquets. He gave us cush-ions to use, and we leaned our backs against the bed. The informality of it was fun, but I must admit that my arthritic bones prefer tables and chairs!
He placed his prayer rug on the floor in front of us. This would serve as our table. He set out on it cartons of fruit juices such as mango, bottles of pop and water along with plates of dried figs and dates. The plump, succulent dates that he buys in Chicago were the best that I have tasted.
While we nibbled that dates and figs, there was a steady stream of conversation – much of it about politics – always politics! From time to time he went to the kitchen to check on the food and returned with flat bread and plates for Bill and me, but no knives for forks. “Here are plates for you, but I am going to eat as I might in Mauritania with out a plate.” He said that he usually eats fast food, but he had prepared a dish of braised meat shanks with slices of tomatoes which we ate – interspersed with dates and pita bread – with our fingers. He also set out a dessert similar to baklava.
Vadel lived up to what I have read of people of the Middle Eastern and North African countries, how they press food on guests as a measure of their hospitality. “Eat some more, Rose! You’re not eating!”
“Vadel, I’m full! I’ve eaten most of the dessert!”
“Beel, eat, eat; you aren’t eating enough!”
“You must eat, Beel! Here let me give you this piece of meat!”
By the time we left we were absolutely stuffed.
I took him to meet my seventy-something sister, Christine. she was delighted to meet Vadel, as she’d read my columns about him. After chatting for an hour or so, Vadel and I drove back to Indianapolis. As soon as we got in the car, he said, “Rose, doesn’t your sister have a family?”
“Indeed she does! She has eight children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He thundered, “Then why is no one there with her?”
Stunned by the vehemence of this usually mild-mannered man, I said, “For goodness sake! What do you mean?’
“Where are her children; where are her grandchildren and little great grandchildren?”
“Vadel, one daughter lives with her but goes to work. The rest of her family live in other towns.”
“They should be with here with her! Old people should not be left alone!”
I called Christine, and we had a merry chat. “Good grief!” she exclaimed. “The very thought of constantly having even my adult family here, let alone the kiddies, makes me shudder! It would drive me nuts – too much energy, too much noise, too much confusion! I’m glad to see ‘em come, and I’m glad to see ‘em go! In fact, as soon as you left I took a little nap in my recliner.”
GULFS TOO BROAD TO BRIDGE -CONTINUED-
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
From wandering on a foreign strand!
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) – “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”
Or as Dorothy put it, “There’s no place like home!” Vadel yearns for his homeland, no matter how bad it may seem to us. Before her death, our friend, Phyllis Otto, explained this by saying, “Think about the columns that you’ve written about your deep feelings for the days of your youth. I think that all of us live the child within us.”
Vadel talked about the Nomads: “I miss the sand dunes and the stars and couscous. If I could return to Mauritania I would head for the desert and the Nomads as fast as I could! You pay for nothing; they give you your food. We are a very hospitable people. Everybody is welcome to come into our homes. Money is not important to us, and our old people are never left alone.
“The Nomads move every day because if they stay too long in one place their camels get sick. They get up very early in the morning and milk the camels for breakfast. some ride, some walk. I tell you, those people can walk! You should see how I can ride a camel! the chief of the tribe must now a lot. He can go into a big mixture of animals and know just by appearances which beasts belong to his tribe.”
There are things that Americans cannot understand or accept. Mauritania has a rigid caste and tribal system that Vadel says we could never understand. At the top are two parallel classes of light-skinned Moors – a scholar class and a military class. The keepers of meats are a very respected class. Other castes exist for various occupations such as artisans. One’s class is inherited; occupations are passed down from father to son. Vadel said, “If you are not a member of the singer class, even if you have a marvelous voice, no one would come to hear you sing!”
At the very bottom of the class structure are the slaves, descendants of dark-skinned people from other African countries who were sold into slavery. Vadel describes the slaves as cherished family retainers who live with their owners, eat at the same table with them and who must be taken care of by their owners. A slave can be freed if his owner wishes or buy his freedom. I found that my reaction with colored by our own history. When one says the word “slave” to me, visions come to mind of the evils of the slavery which once existed in this country. Paternalistic or not, slavery is slavery.
One time when I was paying for gas I told Vadel that I was going to Knightstown. “What? You’re traveling? You must take this water!” I explained that I was going only 30 miles. “I insist. You might get thirsty.” After that he literally would chase me to the car. Next Bill started coming home with yogurt smoothies. When Eric and Stacey Cox, publishers of the Knightstown Banner, stopped to meet him they too had to accept drinks. I came to the conclusion that this was a result of his desert heritage.
My mother would have loved Vadel. Oh, what debates about religion they would have had! His sunny friendliness conquers people and changes hearts. When I took him to Knightstown he said, “I must stop at the station and by water.” He returned to the car and said, “You remember that guy who was so mean to me after 9/11? He was in line in front of me just now. when I started to pay the clerk said, “That man already paid for your stuff.” I thanked him as he was leafing, and he said, ‘That’s okay.’ Rose can you explain this?”
“Yes. He has come to realize how wrong and prejudiced he was. He couldn’t bring himself to apologize to you in words, so he tried to make up for it by a generous act.”
Perhaps we could all profit from this story.
THE FRENCH HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN
I was at the park in St. Brieuc, Brittany, where people were admiring a cygnet. An interesting old woman and I chatted about how proud the swan parents seemed to be of their baby. A few days later, I asked a gentleman the name of a fish at the market. He said, “Are you the American teach of French whom my wife met?”
“Oui Monsieur” He invited me to go to their home for tea the next day. I took some cookies. He had been a music teacher and played Chopin for me. The room that did double duty as their dining room/living room was about ten by ten, and the music reverberated in my ears.
I took another treat when I visited again. Madam said, “Merci, beaucoup! We are so poor. We lost two houses in Normandy during the bombing. That took away our security.”
“Did you fight in the war, Monsieur?”
“Certainement! Those filthy Parisians used us Bretons for cannon fodder!”
Don’t believe it when they say that the French are ungrateful for our sacrifices during World War II. During another trip to France with Jean and her husband, we took a tour of the Normandy beaches close to the anniversary of the Invasion. At the end of the tour, we went to the museum and saw a movie. There were may French people in attendance. I said in French to the lady seated next to me, “Madame, I am very pleased to see so many French people here.”
She began to cry and replied, also in French, “Madam, we French will never forget what you Americans did for us. Jamais! (Never!) People all around us exclaimed, “Jamais, jamais!”
Two Stories of Survival
When Jean and we spent two weeks in the south of France we stopped at Aix en Provence, the university city where Cezanne had his studio. The old cities of France have very little parking. We arrived during the morning rush hour, and Jean had no luck at finding a place to park. Clever Bill saw a sign for the office of the French Red Cross. “Go into their lot! You can pay a courtesy call as an executive of the American Red Cross.”
We went to the reception desk where I explained who Jean was. The secretary called out a gentleman who greeted us warmly. As he spoke no English, I interpreted. “You are most welcome here and may leave your car here as long as you like.” He ushered us into his office.
“I want to tell you my story,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to the Red Cross, and I love America because the American Red Cross saved my life. During World War II when I was twenty years old, the Germans sent me to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany
He described the conditions at the camp. Jean cried, and my voice trembled as I translated. “Each day we were given one little loaf of bread to eat. One little loaf of bread isn’t very much for a boy of twenty. I know beyond any doubt that I would have starved if the American Red Cross hadn’t sent food packages. I say to you from the bottom of my heart, “Veve l’Amérique et les Américains!” (Long live America and the Americans)
“He abandons everything to serve his country!” Society of the Cincinnati.
The Vrabel’s and we stayed at the Château de Boucéel in Normandy. A little Knights Templar Chapel remains of an older Château. The current 1763 château with a lake and peacocks belongs to the Count and Countess Régis de Roquefeuil-Cahuzac who greeted us warmly. He earned a degree in Chiropractic in Chicago.
We sat around his desk while he told an amazing story. After D-Day the Germans confiscated every kind of conveyance. His father, Count Arnaud, was a courier for the Resistance, carrying messages in his bicycle’s lamp. Soldiers demanded his bicycle. he was terrified that they’d find the message. He talked them into letting him keep the headlamp as a souvenir. A soldier even helped him unscrew it.
One morning 80 men from the Gestapo surrounded the château. Count Arnaud told them that his wallet and I.D. were in the basement. Incredibly, the officer sent him alone to get them where he destroyed compromising papers by swallowing some and hiding others in bottles of cider.
A machine gun was hidden under the couch. The cool-headed Count invited the officer to sit there. The soldiers searched everywhere but didn’t ask their commanding officer to move. Had they discovered the gun; they would have shot the Count immediately.
He was put in a prison camp and was to be deported on the “Death Train” that went to Buchenwald Concentration Camp from which few returned. The deportations were organized alphabetically with Nazi efficiency. His letter would be called soon.
Count Régis said, “Father knew that Résistance men were hiding in the Victory Café across the street and used a mirror to flash Morse code messages. They got word out about the train, and the railroad bridge was bombed.
Eventually, Arnaud escaped, had many adventures, and lived to return to the château. Count Régis showed us the book of exquisitely executed cartoon that Count Arnaud drew about his experiences.
Count Régis is a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, named for Cincinnatus, a Roman who returned to his plow after leading his troops to victory, Henry Knox started it after the American Revolution. Its hereditary membership reads like a Who’s Who of the American Revolution: Hamilton, von Steuben, Greene, Lafayette, Rochambeau, de Grasse, and Kosciusko.
George Washington was President General of the Society until his death. The French Navy presented him with a diamond-encrusted pin in the shape of an eagle that has been worn by each succeeding President of the Society. Count Régis’ uncle was one of the Presidents. What a thrill it must be to wear something once worn by the great Washington!
Régis is also a member of La Société de la Mémoire (Society of Remembrance) whose members tend the graves of the American soldiers in the nearby St. James Cemetery. Count Régis said, “I chose to honor a pilot named George Mick who was killed at the age of 24 on September 5, 1944. I am so touched and pleased to lay flowers that I myself choose and cut on that young Americans grave. You see that bridge was bombed on September 9, and I like to think that George Mick participated in my father’s salvation.” He continued very softly, “No we French have not forgotten. We shall never forget what the Americans did!”
Early in the morning before we left to return to the States, I went alone to the library and looked again at the drawings. Looking around the pretty room, I thought, “This land was made for warm-hearted people like our hosts and for lovely houses with sweeping lawns and parading peacocks. This land was made for peace.” and then the barbarians came. Again, and again them came… In homage, I laid my hand on the Count’s most prized possession that he keeps on his desk – the little bicycle lamp.