Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Conscience Conversation

            I was having a conversation with my Conscience. I often do that—have these conversations and make contracts with it. You know—“This year I’ll join the gym.” “No more sugar for me.” “This year I’ll walk a mile a day.” And so on. So when I picked up a dark chocolate bar my Conscience noticed.
          “Candy!” My Conscience said. “I thought you were giving up sugar.”
          “But this is chocolate,” I said. “And dark chocolate. It’s good for you.”
          “Yeah, but you know how you are, you won’t stop till it’s all gone.”
          “Look, I’m only going to have three small squares,” I said.
            My Conscience cocked an eyebrow and said, “Just three?”
            I nodded vigorously. “Just three.”
           “Can I trust you? Remember…”
            I interrupted. “I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll only take three.         And it’s the last I’ll ever eat today.”
           “The last?”
            I nodded.
                I walked away smiling. Foxed it again! You see, my Conscience never reads the fine print.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Johnny Dahl

            I’d flown home from a business trip and was tired and a bit cranky when I got to the top of the escalator. At the bottom was a group of people waving small American flags and holding high a big hand-written sign. “Welcome home Eddie.” I stepped aside for I was curious. And then I saw him, a young man, still a boy really, dressed in the browns and khaki of camouflage, a bulky duffle bag slung over his shoulder. He was tall and blonde and I began to cry.
            I thought about Johnny Dahl.  One day in 1945, I was walking along Bridge Street when I heard the bells at Notre Dame Church begin their slow tolling.  Some one has died, I thought, and saw Judge Rhinehart walking toward me.  He was wiping his eyes and blowing his nose.
            I stopped, but before I could say anything he spoke. “Johnny Dahl.  On Iwo Jima.”
            Not Johnny Dahl!  A great big kind, thoughtful boy.  He was special to me.  Johnny was four years older than I, a football star and a crack debater.  He was a senior while I was still a lowly freshman.  But I knew all about him.  I was a debater too, first affirmative speaker on the B team.  Johnny was first affirmative on the A team.  I thought we had a lot in common.
            I have received lovely gifts in my lifetime, and been much loved, but Johnny Dahl gave me a gift that lives in my heart forever.
            One of my best friends was Marion, called “Blondie” by all the boys.  She was beautiful and the most popular girl in school.  Even Senior boys asked her for dates.  We all longed to be like Marion.  I especially did, for Marion had a graceful way about her that allowed the boys to bloom in her presence.  I wished for that sophisticated glow, but I was skinny and still wearing my hair in long braids.
            One afternoon, after debate practice, Johnny Dahl asked if I’d like to go to the Chippewa Drug for a coke.  I almost stopped breathing.  Johnny Dahl!  In Chippewa Drug!  The whole town would see us together.  Speechless, I nodded my “yes.”
            I don’t know what we talked about on that mile long walk.  His six-feet, two-inch raw-boned frame towered over me, and I felt him pull back on his stride as I raced to keep up.  He was wearing his football sweater, the letters “CF” white against the red wool.  I wore my blouse with a Peter Pan collar, wool skirt, cardigan, string of pearls, and scuffed saddle shoes (the latest in teen fashion).  I was in heaven.
            My friends were already in the drug store with their one shared coke, reading the current magazines.  They were impressed.  Everyone made room so we had a booth to ourselves in the back.  I had a cherry coke.  He had a lime coke.  We sipped in silence.  Then he put his hand over mine.  “Ruth,” he said, and he looked hard at me.  His even features were tanned, his crew cut bleached pale from the sun.  I thought he was the most handsome boy I’d ever seen.  “Yes,” I said breathlessly.
            “I know you wish you were popular like Marion right now.  But don’t worry, and don’t rush it.  You’re going to be a beautiful, lovely woman.  Let it happen gradually.  Keep debating, and acting, and having fun.  Your day is coming.”
            It was one of those moments when time stands still, where the noises and scenes in the background fade away.  All I could see was the depth of Johnny’s eyes, as if I’d looked at his soul.
            And Johnny Dahl was killed when he was 19 on Iwo Jima.  I’ll never forget him.  He’s with the angels now, feeling perfectly at home.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rights for All

           I was talking with a young black woman recently while standing in a long line at the train station. She was a college student, smartly dressed, on her way to visit her parents. We chatted about the movie “The Help.” We’d both liked it. “I’ll bet you’ve seen a lot of history,” she said, noting my white hair.

The line moved and we boarded the train. I thought about what she’d said. Yes, I have seen a lot of history. As a young mother in 1951, we lived in Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had been invited to a tea for Pearl Buck, a huge honor for me as I’d read and loved her books. And here I was, in the same room with the woman who had written on of my favorites, The Good Earth. It seemed almost unreal. She gave a talk about her experiences as a girl in India and China. Then told of going to a home in a tiny village in India. There, in a place of honor was a picture of Abraham Lincoln. The family knew nothing about America or that Lincoln had been a president. They knew only that he was a man who had freed slaves. Miss Buck told stories of the kinds of discrimination she’d seen and how that had molded her life, one spent doing what she could to eliminate discrimination.
I listened in awe and wished desperately I could do something, anything, to help create a world where all people were seen as equal. When my chance came to sit with her, I told her I wanted to help. She asked what I was doing. Apologetically, I explained that I was a wife and had small children. She smiled and patted my hand. “My dear,” she said. “You have the most important job in the world. What you can do is go home and raise those children so they will grow up free of discriminating against others for any reason.” 
Then in 1956, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, a segregated city. We were a young couple with four small children, damnyankees recently transferred to this beautiful city. This would be our fifth move in nine years. But we had no choice. In those days when the corporation said, “Move,” you asked, “How far?”
So here I was in a city so different from the middle-western small towns I’d grown up in. I had read about segregation. When I was in high school, I’d paid all of twenty-five cents to join a group against the poll tax. I’d read about discrimination and had signed all the petitions. But now I was living in it. My daily life was filled with the tasks of a wife and mother—cleaning, cooking, laundry, childcare. My friends were the women who lived in the nearby townhouses, all southern white women. In this white urban setting I felt like a fish out of water, struggling to discover who I was in this new environment. Wondering what I could do about the situations I thought so unfair. I longed to do something out in the world that might make a difference, something to help break these crippling chains of segregation.
My day finally came when I had to take a bus. At last, maybe I could do something, make some kind of statement, a difference perhaps. I waited on my corner until the bus I needed arrived. And when it did I deliberately walked to the back and sat in a seat beside a black woman. The driver called out,” Ma’am, you’ll have to move.”
“I’m fine right here,” I called back.
He turned off the engine, got out of his seat, and ambled up to me. He seemed tired and bored by it all. “Ma’am, the law says I cannot move this bus until you move to a forward seat. This here’s for colored.”
I looked at the woman beside me. Her hands were clenched and I saw a thin gold wedding band. She wore a neat brown wool coat and hat to match. Her low-heeled pumps were similar to mine. She was about my age, probably a wife and mother just like me. A bag of groceries sat on the floor beside her feet. Perhaps she was going home to cook dinner for her family. She pulled herself toward the window and looked down into her lap.
“I don’t mind sitting here,” I said.
She tilted her head toward me. “Please move,” she pleaded. “Please. They won’t arrest you.”
Her quiet words stunned me for I knew it was true. I got up and moved.
And then we were transferred again. A stint in New York, one in Detroit, and then during the middle 60s, we moved to Mount Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My children were older and I was more able and willing to do battle. I became an active player in the Civil Rights movement. But nothing my friends and I did could equal what so many had lived through. 
I’ve never forgotten the courage of that woman on the bus. I often think of her and of all the others who lived with dignity in such conditions. I blush with shame and embarrassment to think this country of freedom could have allowed such things to go on. We’ve come a long way, thanks to the courage of so many, but there’s still “way” to go.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Love Story

Their names are Tefek and Gülsüm. At the time I met them they were in their 70s, but that spark of love was still evident in their manner with one another. Tefek had built their home in a spectacular canyon (Kőprűlű) in the southern part of Turkey. Only a goat could find the way. The road was treacherous and I held my breath as Aydin (my guide) navigated through the canyon. The jeep stopped and there, before us, was a large sturdy house built of stone. A purple bougainvillea flourished in an old oil tin.  No electricity, and no running water, but there was a convenient well, candles, and lanterns. Each room had a fireplace. Nine of their ten children were gone, only their youngest daughter, Fatos (Fatosh), remained. She had so far refused several suitors and lived at home with her parents, cooking and cleaning, enjoying the quiet of country life. There were two cows that Tefek milked each morning, several goats and a herd of sheep that roamed the nearby rocks. In the valley below was a roaring stream, its sound soothing in the night.
As Fatos prepared our dinner, Gülsüm took my hand and led me into her bedroom. A fire was softly glowing in the fireplace. The furnishings were simple. A small chest and a stack of the futon-like quilts they use. Several to sleep on, one to cover up with. We sat on the hearth. She held her hands to the fire and spoke softly in Turkish. Then she took my hand and held it as we sat together, two women sharing a kinship that needed no words.
            We ate dinner on the deck under the Milky Way, drank strong red wine and many cups of chai while my guide Aydin told me their story.
            Tefek, who has the bluest eyes I have ever seen, was born nearby in Tazi village. His father died when he was small, his mother when he was eleven. And so he was orphaned. No other family would take him in, and he had no relatives in the area and so was left to be on his own. Stubbornly he refused to go to another village, even though he was encouraged to go find “his people.” But he had decided that his people were there in that village, and so he was tolerated, given an occasional job, and treated as an oddity.
            When he was fifteen he saw eighteen-year-old Gülsüm. Tefek fell in love and began to find ways to court her. It wasn’t easy, for he was poor and her father, brothers, and cousins protected her. But he found his ways. He worked tirelessly and saved his money all the while finding opportunities to see and talk to her. When he had saved enough, he approached her and asked her to marry him. Gülsüm was willing, but the customs were strict. Tefek would have to ask her father for her hand and provide proof that he could care for her. Tefek knew he could care for her, but he also knew Gülsüm’s father. He was a man of substance and had other plans for his only daughter. The father refused. So Tefek did what custom also allowed. He stole Gulsüm! And she went with him, willingly. They ran away to the place where they now live and began their life together.
            Gulsüm’s father was furious and he enrolled his sons and nephews to hunt for the young people. They were advised to find them and arrest Tefek when they did. They obviously didn’t try very hard. Tefek had not gone far away, but it took three months before they were found and by then, Gulsüm was pregnant. The brothers brought the young couple back to Gulsüm’s indignant father. He scolded and fussed, but what was he to do? A grandchild was on the way, and Gulsüm looked happy and healthy. He finally embraced Tefek, called him son, and made the arrangements for a proper wedding. After a huge celebration, he sent the young couple back to their home.
            Aydin finished the story and Tefek picked up his shepherd’s flute. One hundred twenty-five years old, it sounded as sweet as when it was new. Tefek announced he would play a love song for his bride. Gulsüm smiled and blushed. Sixty years of child bearing and hard work and Gulsüm would run away with Tefek again. I was sure of that. 
            Love stories anyone?