In a Minor Key

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.


To Halloween or not to Halloween

Even though Thanksgiving is a holiday established from a tradition dating back to colonial America, and July 4th is the day we celebrate the declaration of our independence from Great Britain, I think I could make a case for Halloween being the most-celebrated holiday in the US.  Certainly it is looked forward to with much excitement and costume-planning by adults and children; even pets get dressed up.  Stores make a mint selling large amounts of candy as well as costumes.  People decorate their lawns and homes with elaborate, usually creepy, decorations; haunted houses and trails abound; costume parties are a given.

I don’t remember Halloween being all that special to me as a Jewish child growing up in Brooklyn, nor how young I was when I was allowed to dress up and trick or treat in my neighborhood.  I remember as an adolescent doing “Trick or Treat for UNICEF.”  The holidays that were most important to me were the Jewish ones, celebrating the miraculous intervention of God in the lives of my ancestors, reminding me that God was still a very present Being in my life, and just being really fun family times.

When two of my children were young, we allowed them to dress up and trick or treat in our neighborhood in Dayton, OH.  The costumes were usually made by the kids themselves and not very elaborate.  In those days, kids could still get homemade cookies or treats from the neighbors without fear of malicious damage, and we limited our kids on where they could go and how much candy they could eat.

When I became a Christian and started to look at the origins of Halloween, my views on celebrating this holiday changed. A friend of mine, who’d been involved in the occult before she became a Christian, was aware of the background of Halloween as a day celebrated by satanists, witches, and other occult groups, a holiday celebrating death and the macabre.  When my husband and I decided not to celebrate Halloween, we were in a very distinct minority.  Initially, to avoid the constant ringing of the doorbell, we’d leave the house early in the evening on the designated “Beggar’s Night” and return when it was over.  After a while, people realized we were not participating and just stopped coming by, so we just hung out at home as on any other night of the school year.

We have plenty of friends and family members who do celebrate Halloween – some of our own now-grown kids do – but we have never tried to preach to them or belittle them for their choice to do so.  When a child I know shows me a costume, I  admire it, but I still don’t take part in Halloween parties, Harvest parties, or any other celebration of this day.  I usually don’t express my opinion on this unless asked, but a recent article posted on FaceBook by a friend seemed to demand a response.   The Christian author offered three choices for Christians on Halloween: to avoid the holiday, to celebrate the holiday, and to redeem the holiday.  Somehow, those Christians who choose to avoid celebrating Halloween are often chastised – I’ve heard sermons preached about it – as if, by not engaging the culture in this area, we are not truly being ambassadors for Christ, not really being “in the world yet not of it.”  Kind of reminds me of when we home schooled our children, or had our home births; people would make offensively defensive remarks to us, as if by our own personal choices, we were condemning theirs, though that was never the case.  We would share our reasons, engage in discussion, and move on.

It’s been so long since I’ve done the research that I don’t remember the details of all the reasons not to observe the holiday of Halloween.  The article I mentioned gave some of the background – the Druids, the pagan worship, the involvement of the Catholic Church – and I won’t go into much of it.  You can always check it out on your own.  I just have several points I’d like to make.  Whether you agree with me or not, that is fine.  Just expressing my opinion (which is getting increasingly hard to do in this country)…

First, no matter how you try to dress up the holiday – pun intended – with Disney character costumes, Biblical people costumes, Reformation leader costumes, or just very cute, original, and well-made costumes, you cannot really get away from the fact that the basic thing about Halloween is its scare factor.  Halloween is all about being scared….because it is all about ghosts, witches, demons, and, to quote Yoda, “the Dark side.”  Whatever lightness and fun you may feel at a harvest party or when taking your kids trick or treating in your neighborhood is not the same lightness and fun that is exhibited in decorations, movies, and the general Halloween atmosphere: it is SCARY.  Personally, I don’t see the value in deliberately choosing to be scared, whether or not you think the scary things are real, but demons and witches ARE real, and they are not people-friendly; they serve a master whose goal is to corrupt and destroy people.  Thankfully, we serve a Master who is greater than theirs, and I don’t feel that I honor Him by celebrating His enemy’s holiday.

Second, I disagree with the opinion that you have to participate in the holiday in order to engage people in a dialogue about Christ.  I know people who choose to do this, and that may work for them, but it hasn’t for me.  I need to stand up for what I believe to be true and to be willing to politely and kindly explain my views to anyone who asks me.  “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” ( I Peter 3:15 ) To draw a parallel between the pagan animal sacrifices to their gods, and the rituals instigated to deter demons on All Hallows’ Eve, and the Jewish animal sacrifices ordained by and offered to Elohim is clearly to miss the point….. I would not participate in other pagan rituals, nor will I in this one, no matter how it has been sanitized. There is no equivalence between worshipping gods and worshipping God.

Years ago, when our kids were young and we were living in Dayton, OH, we knew another family who chose not to celebrate Halloween.  One year, though, they decided that they would have a Halloween party for the neighborhood kids, hoping to reach some of them for Christ.  No one came.  Finally, they called us and asked us if they could just come over and hang out with us. While we were together….noshing, chatting, playing games….they mentioned a neighbor who was really struggling, becoming conscious of her sinfulness but unable to move from bondage to freedom.  We ended up spending time in fervent prayer for her, and that night, she received the Lord as her Savior.  That was probably my most memorable Halloween, because, instead of trying to be part of something we could not condone, we engaged in spiritual battle against the forces of darkness and won a victory.  That was redemption – not of the holiday – but despite the holiday.

Writing 101: Happy Pesach!

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.

Time and Laughter

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.