Today is the Winter Solstice. I love this day. In fact, I might say, it is my favorite day of the year. Of course, my friend, Mary, says I say that about every day!
Indeed, it is magical. Enjoy the day, the darkness, the peace of this winter's night before we begin heading back towards the long days of summer.
Thursday, December 20, 2018
Perhaps I am like everyone else waiting and watching for the one Christmas miracle. There is always the story of the reporter out on the streets of New York looking for the miracle (or maybe that was a TV movie?)
With Christmas 2018 just days away I knew it was time to review two of my favorite miracle stories that happened many years ago.
In some ways it is hard to imagine that just a few are still alive who can tell us the stories. Luckily for us we rely on writers and storytellers and musicians who continue to bring the stories to life for us.
I met John McCutcheon years ago at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee. I bought my ticket weeks ahead of time so I would not miss his performance. On the evening of his show I found myself, as well as several hundred storytellers, under the tent on that October night. The stage was full of instruments from banjo to piano to guitar to mandolin, and all were to be played by McCutcheon. For a full hour he played and sang and wowed us. Towards the end of the show he grew quiet as he began singing his signature piece, “Christmas in the Trenches.” It would be easy to say there was not a dry eye under the big tent. It is the story of the Christmas truce on Christmas Eve, 1914. The story within the song tells us how the British and the German soldiers put down their weapons and crossed into No Man’s Land briefly to hold this truce. It is said they traded cigarettes, songs and played soccer together. There are historical letters and photographs in the archives in Britain to piece this story together. The stories say that the Germans sang “Stille Nacht” and the Britons sang back. We also need to keep in mind that these were just young boys away from home for the first time deep in the trenches of war.
In another wonderful story we find the people of North Platte, Nebraska the center of a story beginning on Christmas of 1941. This story was documented fully in the book, “Once Upon a Town,” by Bob Greene. The folks in North Platte heard their sons were coming through town on the train on Christmas. They wanted to greet their sons and send them off to war properly so they organized a welcoming committee to meet the train with food and gifts for their boys.
They were quite surprised when the train arrived with other young men and not their own. It didn’t take long for the folks of North Platte to make a commitment to meet every train passing through with service men. The word spread, and as a result, by the time the war ended over 6 million young men were served by this community. We have to remember this was a time of war and rationing, yet for those war years the folks of North Platte made coffee and cakes, gave out magazines, and entertained the troops with the piano in the station. It is impossible to imagine the magnitude of the food except to say the minimal sandwich distribution for each train was 20 bushel baskets. They began making birthday cakes too. They made at least twenty a day and gave them out to the young men and women celebrating a birthday. Popcorn balls were made as well with some of the young women writing their name and address on them. After the war some of those women became brides of the recipients!
It is almost unimaginable that a small community could conceive of such a project and continue it until the North Platte Canteen closed on April 1, 1946.
These two Christmas miracles are now long ago and years old. The stories exist in yellowed letters and fragile newspaper accounts. I don’t know about you, but just thinking about these stories gives me great hope for mankind. Perhaps it rests on our shoulders as a bit of a challenge as well.
If you are in need of a Christmas miracle, listen to McCutcheon sing his song or read the story by Greene. Or, just maybe, you need to look into the face of a child…that ought to be enough.
So, for this 2018 Christmas, I wish you the warmest of holidays with your family and friends. Pull down the barriers and let the truce take hold, if only for a day.
Their front two teeth were missing. They always wore red flannel shirts, but on this day, they had new red flannel shirts with suspenders. I left Hamilton early so I would be able to attend, and sat in the front row. I didn’t sit in the front row because I could take good pictures. No, we had no camera because of the cost of film. No, I sat in the front row so I would be there for them and cheer and clap loudly, as mothers do. They weren’t exceptional singers, but it was Christmas, and with their teeth out, who better to sing, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” I am sure Mrs. Frymier, their music teacher, had a lot of convincing to do to even get them to participate, but then again, they were in the first grade.
Following the program, Art Ryan dimmed the lights in the gym for the annual Christmas sing before the vacation. Parents and friends streamed in from every corner to participate in this activity. In all the years at Hendry Park Elementary School, this was my absolute favorite activity. With the lights dimmed and Mrs. Frymier at the piano, we all sang our hearts out before collecting our little folks to take them home for the holidays.
The truth, is after all my boys had graduated from Hendry Park, I began the tradition at Hamilton Elementary School. Maybe it still lives, I don’t know, but I do know it was my favorite day of the year.
Matthew and Jonah both graduated from Hendry Park, and now it is Graham’s turn to fill all of those shoes. The production is bigger than during my children’s years. It is an evening event so many more can attend. I am invited to not only attend, but to come over for Graham’s birthday dinner before the event.
I ride my bike over on this rainy night with all the bells and whistles lit up. I even wear my Dollar World necklace of lit up Christmas lights…”the better to see you with, my dear!” As I round the corner I smell the burgers on the grill and pull up to the lit up house of Aaron and Rachel. Graham’s cousins from Ft. Wayne have already arrived, and I walk in with my birthday present wrapped up in Christmas paper! Presents are opened before dinner because, well, because Graham is now ten! He loves all the presents, but I must confess, I think mine is the favorite. His gift is an Angola sweatshirt, designed and lettered by Connie at the Angola Sports Center. (Please buy local!) He puts it on right away. Homemade cake follows the cheeseburgers and the lighting of the birthday candles. We chat and laugh and talk, but soon it is time to get Graham off to the program. We encourage him to change into a dress shirt. I vote for the flannel shirt and suspenders, but realize, of course, he owns no such clothes. But no matter how we encourage and plead, he will not take off the Angola sweatshirt. Rachel and I both laugh, “No one will see him anyway. There are so many kids!”
We all split up as Aaron takes Jonah to hockey practice, Cindy and Rachel take Graham, and I take the bike in the dark and the rain.
I thought we would be early, but not at all. We were lucky to get seats in the back row. With our cell phones handy (for the photos) we wait for the children to come in, and, of course, Graham is proudly in the front row wearing his purple sweatshirt! We all smile. This is definitely a Christmas program…or Holiday program…to remember.
Some songs are new, but others are the old favorites, and I hum along. The gym is filled with families including parents and grandparents and lots of babies and toddlers. As I glance around I know many folks who had children here once, but now come to cheer on the grandchildren. When it is over e chat with Graham and other folks, before I head outside into the holy darkness with large raindrops falling everywhere.
My bike is waiting, and I turn on all the bells and whistles before I head out into the glistening streets. I take a look at my beloved Miss Columbia all decked out and bike on home with new memories mingling with toothless little boys in flannel shirts.
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Monday, October 22, 2018
|Taking the long way home.|
My speech classes have moved on to Storytelling 101, my personal favorite. They are ready, prepared, and having a great time. I love watching them on the stage emerge as lovely butterflies from the chrysalis on the first day with total stage fright. Now they calmly take the stage, look the audience over and begin. In just a few weeks, they will be ready to take on the world, or at least give elegant speeches in their other classes!
The students wind their way through this course slowly, cautiously with one speech at a time. The value of rhetoric, persuasion, and good old-fashioned power point conclusive speeches are also on the perimeter.
A week ago, we finished acceptance speeches and eulogies. One is easy. One is hard. “You will give eulogies one day,” I say to them. My Arabic students are baffled by this concept, as they do not give these types of talks. “But,” I say, “you tell stories of your loved ones after they die, don’t you?” They nod in the affirmative.
I let them be clever, should they choose, on their eulogies. Some take me up on it by eulogizing their alarm clocks or their first-purchased fair goldfish. One student, a few years ago, gave my eulogy. When he started out, I began to think to myself, “Well, I would like to know her.” And then, in another moment I knew who she was. It was alarming and lovely all at the same time. Eulogies never point out the faults of the deceased, as you well know. They always accentuate the positive!
When giving these eulogies, I keep a box of Kleenexes next to my chair. We have used them often. Once a student gave a eulogy for his newly deceased father…not a dry eye in the house. Sometimes we are stunned and just sit and let it sink in before we move on. Sometimes everyone gets up to hug the student. I guess I could sum this all up in one word, compassion. A eulogy for a lost childhood once sent me over the edge.
Many tell stories of their grandparents. I love those the most probably because that is who I am. Their memories are strong and clear depicting the senses in strong ways for me…baking cookies, raking leaves, celebrating birthdays, sitting in church. My own imagination quickly goes back to my grandmother Luella. She left us many years ago, but I think of her daily. I write about her often, as you well know, using her red plates, sleeping under her hand-stitched quilts, listening to her daily Bible readings. She was the best blue-ribboned cook, too!
I want these children of mine to remember me in that way also. I want them to remember the early morning poetry reads, and the nights we watched the moon slide across the sky.
I want my eulogy to say she was a mother, a grandmother, a neighbor, a friend, a community member, a teacher, a writer, a storyteller, a thinker and she was funny. I also want it to say she was concerned about the world, and she loved deeply. The poet, Mary Oliver, once wrote, “I don't want to end up having simply visited this world.” No, let’s not just visit.
This week I, along with hundreds of others, sat through an hour of eulogies for our colleague. It was elegant. We wept. We laughed. We hugged each other. We remembered. We loved her.
For a month, I have been watching “Charlotte” out my kitchen window. She really was the biggest spider that has ever took up residence on my windowpane. Day after day, she worked although I am not exactly sure of her occupation. I truthfully do not know what she did every day, but she was there to greet me in the morning and wish me happiness. Then one day she disappeared, and when I went to look for her, I found her egg sack attached to my windowsill waiting for spring. She left us her own legacy. I actually cried watching out my kitchen window.
My students learned about themselves more than they realized in giving eulogies last week. Now they have moved on to stories. Do they also realize how stories shape and teach us? They tell Poe and the Grimm brothers, and scary stories for the campfire. One young student said, “This is how my grandma told the story to me.”
And that, my friends, is all there is to that.
This column was first published in KPC Publishing Company.
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
The rain falls with the first cold dampness of the season. I shut off the lights, light a lantern and pick up a pencil. With my eyes shut night, so tight that red blood vessels seem to pop inside my eyelids, I see her.
I see her young, smooth hands quickly race over the tattered notebook with her pencil. I see her pick up the pencil and put it behind her red hair or between her teeth as she searches for the next line, the next thought, the next image. She does not smile as she writes. There really is nothing to make her smile. Her mother died during her own birth. Her father disowned her after leaving home with a married man to have her own relationship. The baby she carried in the womb, as she traveled by foot and by donkey from Paris to Switzerland, is buried somewhere in Europe. The man she loves disappears from time to time. Her mind is too advanced for her time, especially for young women. She cares not for frocks nor frivolous trinkets; instead, she carries books of chemistry and German poetry.
Her name is Mary Shelley, as you might have guessed. She has lived with me for over a year and a day, and every day I am amazed by her.
When Carolyn and I headed down to Indianapolis for the Indiana Humanities “Frankenfest” event, we had absolutely no idea we would come back with a year of study, activities, and adventure ahead of us. I guess one could say that often life simply chooses for oneself, and that is the case here.
One week from today is our own version of Frankenfest, and if you have not heard about it by now, well, then, you are hearing about it now! Starting at 9:00 at Cahoots Coffee Shop, we (not specifically me and Carolyn, but community members) will be reading the entire text of “Frankenstein” from beginning to end, which should be around 5:30 or so. Stop by, have tea, follow along, let your children color while they listen. At 10:00, you and your family can participate in the Franken-Walk beginning at Selman Timber Frame. Wouldn’t it be fun to dress up for that one? The Cline Museum will host a meet the characters at noon with lots of interesting talks and pop-ups spread through the museum. (And, yes, you can access the museum by way of Gilmore Street, just follow the signs.) Back in town, almost every shop is having a special event from making your own green fingernail polish to cookies to filling out passports for buttons and other surprises.
Trine University is also participating with a showing of the film, “Mary Shelley,” on Thursday evening at 7:00 in Fabiani Theatre! My own show of “Mary and Her Monsters” will have a two evening run on October 12 and 19 in Wells Theatre. Jacob McNeal will be joining me in this one-hour fringe performance beginning at 7:00. Please come early, as seating is limited.
So, you have not read “Frankenstein” yet? There is still time, and if not, you know of the book and the enjoyment of the day will not be diminished.
I want to tell all of you this year has been a year of great learning. Someone asked me the other day, “Why did you do this?” I had to laugh…I had no choice. I had no choice.
A young girl full of her own grief and monsters wrote “Frankenstein”. Her story is as riveting as anything anyone could write. I felt I had to tell her story. As for Frankenfest and why did we do that? Carolyn and I both would attest to the knowledge that we live with our own monsters among us. What have we built, made, colluded on in our time that has turned into a monster without us knowing or planning it. This book is as important to our current culture just as much as it was during the life of Mary Shelley.
We encourage you to participate. Come say hello. Paint your nails green. Listen to a chapter of two. See a pop up on the role barbers played during this time. Stop in at the library for games and to look at all the creative artists in our area.
Sadly, Frankenfest will happen only once!
As for me? I am sure Mary Shelley, and all her stories, will live parallel with me as long as we both shall live.
|Lou Ann as Mary Shelly|