Everyone’s life has a soundtrack, the music that plays in the background of the events of one’s life. When I discovered that iTunes carried so many of the songs that comprise my soundtrack, I decided to write my story in sync with that music. When I listen to these songs, they take me back to the places I inhabited and the person I was in those days, remind me of my friends and family, and mark out the rhythm of my life while I was listening to that music.
I am sixty-eight, and I’ve often thought of writing down my story for my kids. They’ve heard little snippets here and there, but I don’t want them to feel that they’ve missed out. I wish I had asked my own parents more about their lives, their motivations, their joys, their dreams, and their sorrows before they each passed on.
Prologue: Human Warmth
The wooden sign over the glass window of the storefront said, “Human Warmth,” which seemed to be a good omen. It was a few steps down from the sidewalk, across a small paved rectangular space. The front door opened into a room whose only furniture I remember was a padded wicker rocking chair, another good omen – a place to rock and nurse the baby who was coming soon. A counter partition in the back on the right divided the front room from a much smaller one, and then a curtained doorway on the left led into the minimalist living quarters: a bedroom with a low platform bed, divided from the small kitchen by a claw foot tub. and a bathroom whose toilet was flushed by pulling an overhead chain. The back door from the kitchen led out into what passes for a yard in a city apartment, a tiny space of flagstones and weeds.
The place had been advertised as a sublet, and the man who was subletting – whose name I think was Allen – was kind and friendly; the price was affordable, and we could move in soon. We did, several days later, and found that in the interim Allen’s kindness had extended to a bowery bum, whom he had taken in, bathed, and fed. Although the man was gone, the unmistakable reek of urine, concentrated in the very pillows of the rocking chair I had already claimed for myself, apprised us of where the man had been sitting before his bath. This should have given us pause, but we were in our twenties and full of idealism and energy. My husband Carlos, know to most of his friends as “Charlie,” got a job in a macrobiotic restaurant around the corner. At home, we baked bread. Carlos had scrounged up an old Fred Braun sign and had made it into one of our own, simply stating: BREAD.
We lived in New York City, in the East Village. The people in our neighborhood, and those passing through who came in to buy our bread, didn’t mind the drying diapers strung on a clothesline behind the partition. They didn’t know that we had to keep the oven pilot light on all the time to keep the roaches out of the oven. (Side benefit: We could make perfect yogurt on the back of that stove.) They didn’t know about the mouse our cat had chased around the tub while I was taking a bath, which she eventually deposited in one of the drawers of clothes kept under our bed. They only knew that we baked bread, bread that was good, inexpensive, and often still warm from the oven. The Hell’s Angels living down the street particularly liked the cinnamon raisin. We enjoyed chatting with the people who stopped in for bread, and we appreciated the ease of having everything we needed within a few blocks’ walk; we had no car. We did not intend, however, to live there for very long nor to bring up our precious baby boy in the noisy, dirty, crime-ridden city. We dreamed of moving to the country and starting fresh in a clean and peaceful environment. We searched ads for cheap homesteading properties in Alaska and worked on paring down our possessions to fit into one large trunk.
We had to move sooner than we’d expected, though, and not to the country. Two authority figures confronted us within a short time of each other. One was an inspector from the health department who told us we were selling bread illegally, with no license. He definitely minded the diapers, the roaches, and the mice, so our home business came to an end. The second visitor was the actual landlord, who’d known nothing about the sublet, which was in any case forbidden by the lease, because he’d not received any rent from Allen for several months – all the time we’d been living there. Apparently Allen’s notion of “human warmth” did not preclude his breaking a rental contract, lying to us, and taking our $300 a month.
We moved on, and so will my story eventually, but before it does, I will go back, back to the beginning, where I was shaped into the person who walked into that storefront in the first place.
An exile can be defined as a separation, voluntary or forced, which may or may not be prolonged, from one’s home or country. It is a pretty broad definition, but it can fit most cases of exile, whether they be of individuals, families, or people groups. Some exiles settle down in a new location and make that their home, no longer wandering, but at rest. Others wander from place to place, intending to return home someday; some fulfill that hope, while others do not. Someone told me that I could view my upcoming move to Indiana as an exile, hopefully temporary. This thought prompted the following musings.
When I was a child, I sometimes felt that I must have come from another planet or, more often, that I had been born into the wrong century. I had a close-knit loving family and good friends, I generally did well in school, I spent summers in the mountains running wild, I read profusely, but I always felt somehow – apart. I never seemed to quite fit in anywhere.
Part of one line from the William Wordsworth poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, has always stuck in my head: “trailing clouds of glory do we come.” In the broadest sense, my whole life on earth is an exile; my true home is not here, but with God in Heaven, and the intuitive recognition of that is probably the reason why I have never felt completely at home anywhere that I’ve lived. Yet even without that completeness, each place I’ve lived has become a home, and leaving that place of security and familiarity to start over somewhere else becomes another, smaller exile.
Sometimes I envy people who have lived all their lives, if not in one town or city, in one geographical area. Certainly that is true for many of my friends here in Stedman. Their lives are rooted, not so much like trees, but more like bushes, which not only grow roots down but also grow branches outward, which entwine with each other so much that it is hard to tell where one begins and another ends. These entwined bushes become a hedge, a place of safety and security, and sometimes of insulation. The TV shows I watched growing up, which still draw me and fill me with longing for the kind of life they portrayed, were shows about families deeply rooted in their neighborhoods, towns, or lands: Lassie, Father Knows Best, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons. Though many of my aunts and uncles lived in their own homes, and my cousins grew up in neighborhoods in Long Island, that was not my life. We moved from apartment to apartment, each one in a little “better” neighborhood as my parents’ income increased. Each place we lived, for however many years, had its own defining markers: schools attended, friends made, milestones of growing up experienced, family memories made. But there was not that solidity and stability, that my cousins and friends had, of having my own home. We were more like the Israelites, striking our tents and moving on, each time with a combination of anticipation and trepidation.
We lived in four different apartments in four different neighborhoods in Brooklyn from my birth through my college years. I was extremely shy, up through college, when a concerted effort by a professor and some classmates encouraged me to break out of my fearful position as an observer of everyone else’s life to becoming an active participant in the world around me. The life rope that sustained me through ten of those years, from age four to age fourteen, was made of strands woven from our summers in the Catskill Mountains, in a small bungalow colony (that’s what we called them back then) named Muldavinville. I hid myself during the school years, but I ran wild and free with my friends during the summer, and perhaps that is why I’ve always considered myself a country girl. I believe that was the hardest exile of my young years – not going back to the place that held many of my happiest memories…
The next big leap, not long after college, when I’d been working for a while at a job in the city, was to move out of my parents’ home into my own tiny apartment in the Village. It was a statement of my independence, but it was a hard one, not only for my parents, who couldn’t imagine why I would want to leave home, but also for me, because I was terrified to live alone. There were other apartments, houses, temporary dwellings – the details of which I will fill in when I finally start writing the longer story of my life – in which I lived alone or with others, in New York, in Brooklyn, in Woodstock, and finally in Cincinnati, Ohio, where my first husband and I moved to go to graduate school.
It wasn’t until I married my husband Paul that we actually bought a house, in Dayton, Ohio, where we lived for about thirty-five years. We had four living children (two more lost in miscarriage) born there, all but one of them born at home. We had church families, good neighbors, great homeschooling friends. We had station wagons, dogs, and a fenced in yard. We definitely had a home, a home in which we had many wonderful times with our friends and even with people we didn’t know. Yet, somehow, to me, and to my four children, Dayton was not a place we wanted to stay forever. We could still be there, and our kids would have some place to come home to and visit, but, to me, that was inconceivable; I always had the feeling that Dayton was only temporary, a longer exile from the place I eventually would be able to call home.
Our next move was to North Carolina, to a tiny town in the Piedmont called Salemburg, where my husband and I took a position, for a year, as houseparents in a maternity home. We fully intended to return to Dayton after that year, but towards the end of that time, we realized that our work there was not yet finished, so we decided to move to North Carolina, selling our home in Dayton. We only stayed another year at the home, and the story of our time there will be the subject of another blog, but we moved from there to a single-wide trailer we rent in Stedman. Lacking the mountains, it is country living that reminds me of my childhoods in upstate New York. In eight years there, we have become pretty well grafted in to the community.
I’d forgotten I’d started this blog, and I’m finishing it after being in Indiana for six months with another six months to go. Leaving my life in North Carolina, even temporarily, was hard. What drew me here, caring for my grandchildren and helping my daughter and son-in-law, was a stronger pull than the regrets. I have a nice apartment here in a small town called Chandler, a few minutes’ walk from their home. I treasure the time spent with them and the enjoy the luxury of the time I have alone. I know that leaving them to return to North Carolina will be hard, as all these partings have been hard, but I look forward to returning home from this exile.
I do feel, however, that this will not be the last trip I will make. Whenever I think of actually settling somewhere, as in our buying a house and planting ourselves more permanently, something holds me back and I sense that my wandering days are not yet over. Perhaps there is a place on this earth that I can settle in and feel that I’ve really come home, and I have not yet found it. Perhaps I never will, and I will continue to be in exile until God finally calls me Home.
My hair wasn’t the only thing I whined about when I was young; at home in the safety of my family, I whined about everything. In public, on the other hand, I rarely spoke and was painfully shy. I was the baby of four children, with thirteen years between my older sister and myself. My sister was beautiful and, having married at eighteen, had a family and just seemed to have it all together. My two older brothers were handsome and fun-loving and had lots of friends. Although intelligent and possessing a sense of humor, I was small, skinny, flat-chested and afraid to speak out in front of my peers in class. During the summers, I ran free and was a different person, but at school, from the Monday after Labor Day until the last Friday of June, I was pretty much a nonentity.
Oh, I had friends, but they were very similar to me. When we lined up in size places, as we did back then in elementary school, we were all in the first quarter of the line. In high school my social groups expanded somewhat, since I was involved in so many activities of the 60’s: civil rights marches, peace protests, folk music. I could talk with my friends, but in the classroom, I still had difficulty speaking up. One of my teachers referred to me as Cordelia in King Lear, because, when I did answer a question, my voice was so soft and low that I was hard to hear.
I carried this shyness with me into college and attracted other girls who were also relatively shy. My lunch partners were Mamie, Idelisse, and Monica, and we had great fun with each other, chattering about everything and anything, until lunch was over and I went back to my classes.
I did have another friend in college, though, who was instrumental in helping me to change myself. It is a sad testimony to old age that I can’t remember her name, though I remember her boyfriend’s name (he thought he was the reincarnation of Thomas Wolfe, but I didn’t think he wrote that well…). She was so totally different from me that it was amazing she became my friend at all. She lived on her own, not with her family like the rest of us. I think she was legally emancipated. She was friendly and caring, outspoken and sure of herself. We were both taking a seminar class for Psychology majors with Professor Austin Wood, one of the best teachers I have ever had. We read novels and short stories, wrote papers examining the characters’ personalities and motivations using our psychological glasses, and then shared our thoughts in class discussions. The class was small and informal, with twelve students. One day I had an unpleasant surprise. Professor Wood had written on my paper “see Elliott,” and had apparently written on Elliott’s paper “see Emily.” Of course I knew who Elliott was; in a class that size we all knew each other, or so I thought. What embarrassment and chagrin I felt when Elliott looked up and said, “Who’s Emily?” I realized that I had effaced myself so completely that I didn’t even exist for some of my classmates.
My friend and my professor together came up with a plan and presented it to me. Professor Wood would ask the other students to help me be comfortable speaking in class. He would propose that they wait a few minutes before answering a question, or first look at me to see if I had an answer, to give me the time to get what was in my mind out of my mouth. My part was to be willing to let them help me and to force myself to speak, despite my fears.
I did it. I took the hand that was offered to me, held on to it, and took the first steps toward building my self-confidence. People who have known me as an adult cannot believe I was ever quiet and shy because I tend now to be loud and outspoken. I don’t know whether they would agree with all that comes out of my mouth these days, but I doubt if my friend and my professor would regret their decision to help me, because, in that class, I found my voice.
I’m not a picky eater anymore, but I still love the twice-yearly Passover Seder more than any other meal. The Seder is an experience, not just a meal, celebrated for two consecutive nights in March or April by Jews all over the world. It is both a remembrance of what God did for us as a people years ago when He freed us from slavery in Egypt and a celebration of what He continues to do for us up to the present. My memories of childhood Seders are so rich and so entwined with who I am that it will be hard to consolidate them into one post.
My mother came from Austria and my father from Russia, both as children with their families. Some of their siblings did well and others not so well; those who were successful lived in nice homes in Long Island. We were on the lower economic end of their families during most of my childhood, and I grew up in a succession of apartments in Brooklyn. Going to my aunt’s house for the Seder was also a treat because I got to spend time with my cousins whom I saw only at holidays and special occasions.
When I walked in the door, the smell of frying latkes enveloped me. Crisp, greasy, hot – we would nosh on them, plain or with applesauce, while waiting for the Seder to start. When everything was ready, we all sat at tables arranged in a T, with a short horizontal part at one end and a very long vertical piece going down. The men sat up at the front, next the older boys, then the older girls, then the children and the women. The table was always decorated with fresh yellow daffodils, and their sweet smell brought Spring into the room. Small cut-glass bowls of salt water were placed along the table, along with plates of celery and carrot sticks. Everyone had a goblet of water and a cup for the dark, sweet Manischewitz wine we had to drink at four different points during the recounting of the Passover story. At the head of the table was the Seder plate, with various elements significant in telling the story, and at an empty seat was the large wine cup of Elijah.
Seder means “order,” and there is a definite structure to the progression of the Seder, a lot to go through before you get to the actual meal. My father and uncles were experts at verbal Hebrew speed-reading, so things usually progressed fairly quickly. The actual Seder meal came about two-thirds of the way through the Seder, so there was a good reason why the men chanted at such lightning speed. At different points there would be general participation, like when we all dipped 10 drops of wine from our fingers to represent the 10 plagues God visited on the Egyptians, or tasted the horseradish root, the parsley, the charoses (a delicious mixture of apples, walnuts, and wine), and the matzo. The salt water on the table was for dipping: parsley, boiled potatoes, and boiled eggs. I traded my yolks with my cousin for her egg whites. There was lots of music – traditional songs, blessings, and the Four Questions chanted by the youngest child and answered by all the men.
Finally, it was time for the feast, and a feast it certainly was. First there was gefilte fish with horseradish – I passed on that. Then bowls of clear chicken soup with one or two matzo balls; my father fondly called them “sinkers.” Meats – roasted chicken, beef brisket – and vegetables – carrot tzimmes and potato kugel – appeared next. We ate until we were stuffed, and then went off to play until the adults finished their eating and conversation and it was time to resume the Seder service. When we had finished the stories, the songs, and the last cups of wine, we had desserts, all made without traditional leavening. There were sponge cakes light and fluffy because made with so many eggs, nuts, coconut macaroons, chocolates, pies. After the desserts, when our eyes were heavy-lidded and our bodies lethargic, the last excitement of the evening roused us to pay close attention.
Part of the Seder involves hiding half of a matzo, called the Afikomen, in a napkin. The Afikomen must be eaten at the very end of the Seder, the last morsel in our mouths. The procedure was that one of the men would have the napkin on his knee, one or more of the kids would steal it and hide it, and then a committee of children would bring it forth and bargain with the men for a price to give it back. Depending upon the condition of the Afikomen – it must be as close to a whole piece as possible – and the bargaining skills of the committee, we could end that evening with quite a bit of cash in our pockets. After we prayed and ate the Afikomen, we always sang Hatikvah and God Bless America.
Our family has always been close-knit and the cousins kept up the Seder tradition each year for a long time after my aunts were unable to do it any longer. We have had a few Seders at our home, done larger group Seders in our churches, and have been guests at others’ Seders. All of them have been immensely enjoyable, yet none of them has quite captured for me the overall experience of the Seders of my childhood, when I was full of delight and anticipation, filled with good things to eat, and enveloped in an atmosphere of family, faith, and tradition.
Lillie, the mother of my best friend from high school, has been writing a wonderful blog about her life, and that inspired me to start a blog in lieu of writing those sporadic group emails. I kept putting off the first entry, but getting a note in my inbox that “theoldyard,” Lillie’s blog, is following mine has shamed me into starting.
So here goes the latest of my mental meanderings. Someday maybe I will write down my life story before I totally forget it, but that will take time, which brings me to my subject.
At the age of 64 (and yes, I did put the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four” as my general ringtone for this year), most of my life is past, the future begins to be measured in smaller time frames, and living in the present becomes easier to do. I think of the passing of time often these days, especially as it is lived out in our little corner of the world.
It is interesting to me how we personalize time, not just as “Father Time” in New Year’s cartoons but with every verb we use to describe its movement. We say it marches on inexorably, flies swiftly, drags depressingly; these are just a few of the expressions we use which, in reality, do not apply to time itself, an impersonal constraint here on earth. Rather, these expressions indicate how each of us views the passing of time in our lives at any given moment.
For those of you who have not been following our adventures here in Stedman for the past four years, and for those of you who have found them hopelessly confusing, I will explain a little about where we live and the people who are close to us, geographically and relationally. Stedman is a small town in Cumberland County, North Carolina, about 15 minutes east of Fayetteville, traveling along NC 24. Fayetteville is most known for being the home of Fort Bragg. We are also only about 15-20 minutes away from Salemburg, in Sampson County, which is where we lived for two years when we first moved to North Carolina.
The trailer we live in, a single-wide built in the 1960’s, was first made available to us as a place to stay on our weekends off from our position as houseparents in a maternity home. We became a part of Stedman PH Church when we first moved here, and our pastor told us about this place. When we came to look at it, we were told to look for the blue and white trailer that was across the road from the place with all the animals. Despite the leaks in the roof in the dining room and the back bedroom, only when it rained, of course, the place seemed like a haven to us. We could leave things here that would make it seem like home, and we wouldn’t be continually moving from temporary place to temporary place. George and Patty, our landlords, fixed it up for us, with furniture, curtains, linens (including one of Patty’s first quilts on our bed), and even matching dishes and silverware Patty purchased at a thrift store. When we decided t0 leave our position at the home, we asked George about the possibility of staying here full-time, and we worked out that we would pay him rent and the electric bill, and buy our own propane and heating oil.
The road we live on is off 24 and is called Magnolia Church Road because Magnolia Baptist Church (which I found out last night has been here since the mid-1800’s) is on this road. From Magnolia Church to Maxwell Road, which borders us on the other end, a good portion of the land is Honeycutt land. The Honeycutts are Patty’s mother’s family, I believe, and so our neighbors are all related to Patty and to each other. The animals across the road are owned by Pete and Martha; Martha is Patty’s cousin, and Martha’s mother, Nellie, still lives in the original home they grew up in. George and Patty live across the field, and their daughter Ronda and her son live right in front of us.
Over the course of the past four years, we have become very close and now consider each other family. It was thinking about Patty and Nellie that got me started on my thoughts about time. Patty is now in end stage dementia; during the past six months her decline, physically and mentally, has been overwhelmingly rapid. When we first moved here, Patty could easily beat us in dominoes and cards, still quilted and did jigsaw puzzles, gardened, cooked and cleaned. Now she is bedridden, unable to do even the simplest thing for herself. George’s life has slowed down in keeping with hers; his life is homebound to a great extent as he patiently cares for her daily and tries to keep her from slipping further away.
Miss Nellie has also begun to show signs of aging, though she refuses to leave her home. She recently had another hospital stay and is increasingly fragile, but, though her short-term memory is going, she retains her sense of humor. Last fall she was pushing a wheelbarrow and picking up pine cones. Martha is her caretaker and will not go far from home.
We are thus very closely surrounded by the evidences of the ravages of time. On the other end of the spectrum, however, I am in contact with new life and growth on a daily basis. Living in the country is part of that, but the major part is spending so much time with little ones, not just the sweet little boy I babysit for, but the children at church, where I work in the nursery once a month. Here time is measured in milestones of growth rather than signs of aging: turning over, sitting up, crawling, a first tooth, a first word. I find all of it delightful, and it fills my life with joy and laughter. I read somewhere that a six-year-old child laughs 300 times a day (or maybe it’s a three-year-old who laughs 600 times a day? Obviously I am still losing brain cells more rapidly than I wish). Spending time with children slows down the effects of time on my mind and body, not just because I have to move around so much. It is because they make me laugh. Not just the little ones, but the older ones, like my grandchildren and my great-niece. Children know how to have fun; they know how to live in the moment; they can appreciate the ridiculous.
The neat thing about babysitting is that every activity is an end in itself; we can take as long as we want to bathe or eat or play, because we do not usually have to be anywhere or do anything other than what we are doing at the moment. What a luxury! Raising children was a much more serious affair; we had to eat lunch at a certain time to get somewhere else, for example. We still managed to be ridiculous and have fun, but living in the moment was a lot more elusive. There were also tasks to be accomplished, goals to be achieved, dreams to realize.
Whatever has not been fulfilled of those tasks, goals, and dreams I have passed on to the next generation; my children will do some of the things I never got to do, and I will enjoy the experiences through them. I don’t know how many years I have left, nor whether they will be lived in health or in infirmity. I do know that I must live them with intention, not wasting any more time, filling each moment with love and laughter, and sharing Life with as many people as I can. Someday my time here will end, and I will enter eternity; I don’t want to come empty-handed.