Tag Archives: relationships

Like One Lost in a Thorny Wood

        The air conditioner’s steady whirring was the only sound in the room. “And why do you think,” my therapist said in the modulated tone she used for this kind of question, “that you have such strong memories of your 6th grade teacher,  Mr. Mason, after all this time?”

            A silver sliver of light had found a path between the drawn curtains and fell across the  carpet.  I started to say something about Mr. Mason being my first male teacher, but no, that seemed too pat.  I let my thoughts go where they might and a memory appeared in my mind, as if on a movie screen. This sometimes happened when I talked with Dr. Monticello, but then I am a  movie fan, so no surprise. The  scene took a minute to come into focus.  My therapist shifted in her  leather chair, waiting for me to proceed.  Her eyes were a little more intent than usual, as she leaned forward slightly.   I noticed she was wearing blue eye shadow.  Maybe a new perfume, also.

“There was an evening back then, “ I began.  “I was sitting in my bedroom with the door half closed, reading.  I heard my father coming down the stairs from his study.  My mother called us for dinner.”

“Excuse me, you were in sixth grade at this time?”

“Yes, I was eleven.”

As my story began to unfold to me—and to my therapist—it drew me back in time,  to my childhood home in the suburb of Naperville, just west of Chicago,   More than 40 years fell away, as if in a dissolve shot in a film, as I vividly recalled one eventful day.

In my memory, the reds and oranges and golds had taken over the woods at the end of our street.  But that fall day, what we used to call Indian summer had stopped by for a brief visit, bringing a reminder of late summer warmth before winter’s chill set in.

I had walked home from school at the usual time and spent the next couple of hours in my room immersed in a biography of Patrick Henry, the orator who had touched the American Revolution with fire.  I had memorized his most famous lines, and would sometimes close the door so I could recite them dramatically without being the target of derision.  “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles 1st his Cromwell, and George 3rd….may profit by their example!”  That afternoon, I could not concentrate on the book, being too keyed up about a television show coming up that evening in which I was to have a starring role—I hoped.

I had spent the previous  weekend  at the library, reading up on the election campaign for Illinois’ governor.  I was developing a keen interest in politics, which made me feel kind of strange because none of my friends was similarly inclined.  A good kind of strange, though.

I admired the young Democratic governor, who was running for re-election. He had a Kennedyesque image.  He, or more likely his ad men, had hit on the idea of a television call-in show where he would field questions from viewers.  It was my plan to phone in a question and my hope to have it read on TV.  It was the closest I could get to talking with a political leader then, but in the future, who knew?

My mother called, “Dinner is now being served…in the main dining hall.”  This was a favorite saying of hers, as if perhaps she were a lady in a Scottish castle.  I heard my father getting up from the desk in his study and then coming downstairs.  When I got to the dinner table, my  little brother was already there.   The family collie had followed her nose to a place across the room.   “Just for tonight, we will have the television on,” my mother said, and smiled at me.  She was setting aside one of her strictest rules—no watching TV at dinner.

My mother had made steak pie, which I knew was one of her favorite recipes.  The tenderloin, pastry, and gravy made a deliciously rich combination, to be washed down with iced tea flavored with lemon and honey.   I noticed  this change from our usual basic fare.  The dinner passed in silence, as usual, with the exception of my mother’s question to each of us about our day in school.  My father focused his attention on the dinner before him, occasionally glancing up at the television set, which emitted a low hum in the corner.

When the program with the Governor came on, I went over and turned up the volume.  He was seated at a table across from the news reporter, his posture being a concession to his having lost a leg in the war—at Guadalcanal, I had read.  The call-in numbers showed at the bottom of the screen.  I jotted them down, went to our phone, and dialed the first number.  A woman’s voice answered and advised I would be placed on hold, but asked me not to hang up.  When she came back on the line, I gave her my name and city, and then read my question to her as distinctly as I could.  She said my question would be placed in a queue.  I thought the British expression odd, but I thanked her and returned to the dinner table.

The reporter read questions from the stack of cards that had been handed to him, and the governor answered each in turn.  The hands on the clock on our dining room  wall seemed to be moving  too quickly.  I was beginning to think my question would go unanswered.  My mother was just starting to clear the dishes, when the reporter said, “Governor, now we have a question for you from Naperville.”  My heart picked up its pace, and we all turned to the television.

“Jeff Wolinski asks you,” the reporter began, garbling my last name of Wallace.

The garbled name had no sooner left his lips than my father started laughing.  The governor was answering, but I could not hear what he was saying, as my father loudly continued, “Wolinski, what kind of name is that?  Wolinski, does he think we’re Polish, maybe?”

In a flash of anger and desperation, I turned to my father and asked, “Can you please be quiet.  I want to hear what he says.”

My father’s face flushed crimson.   “Don’t you EVER talk to me in that tone.  I am your father and you will not talk to me like that.  Do you read me?”

I looked to my mother, but her eyes were cast down.  Tears welled up in my eyes, tears of anger and humiliation.  I wanted very badly to throw my glass of iced tea in my father’s face and the thought scared me.

“Now, you go to your damn room, mister,” my father said.  “And I mean now!”

I trudged off to my bedroom, my stomach in a knot.  I had not heard a word of my question or the Governor’s answer.  I closed the door behind me softly, but pretended I was slamming it with all my might.  I choked on my tears.

On the nightstand, the biography of Patrick Henry remained open.  Outside, the last streaks of red were fading in the western sky.   I turned on the light, picked up the book, and started reading.  In a moment, I was back in the Virginia Assembly in 1775.

When I finished my story, the memory dissolved and I was back in my therapist’s office.  My stomach was still knotted.  My therapist’s expression showed her concern.  After pushing  the box of Kleenex across the table that separated us, she said, “I’m very impressed that  you were able to tell me that story.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

She unfolded her hands.  “I’m afraid that our time is up now,  Take a couple minutes to collect your thoughts, if you like.  We can go into this more next time.”

When I was leaving, she said, “I’ll see you next week.”  She gave my hand a squeeze, which she had not done before.

 

Copyright 2020 by Tom Schultz.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith Between Men and Women: Light in a Murky World

creeping murmur and poring darkA sky the color of smoke broods over the docks of an East Coast city, as Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) sleepwalks through indifferent days unloading freight in the landmark 1950s film, On the Waterfront.  He coulda’ been a contender, could have been somebody—as he confides in his brother—but now, let’s face it, he’s just a bum. His prospects look to be nil, until fortune lends a hand. As the film’s story unfolds, Terry’s path crosses that of a young woman he had known when they were kids in the neighborhood.

With her aura of unsullied idealism, Edie Doyle (Eve Marie-Saint) seems as out of place as a lily of the fields amidst the gritty world of the docks, the musty bars with separate ladies’ entrances, and the working class row houses crowded together like cell blocks. Angelic appearance to the contrary, she is not a delicate flower. Committed to her sense of what is right, and undaunted in trying to find out who is responsible for her brother’s murder, she forces the parish priest to confront reality: the prayers of distant men will never right the wrongs.

Through their growing relationship, Edie brings Terry back to life, spiritually and morally. Viewing himself through her eyes, he reclaims his identity from the shadows of self-doubt. He challenges the very forces who rendered him a nobody, and, in so doing, renews himself.  The faith between men and women shines in a murky and corrupt world.

The character of Edie is really the fulcrum for the actions of Terry and the priest in On the Waterfront. Her resolve imbues them with the strength and courage to take action against the corruption controlling the docks. In the 1950s, this was a remarkable feminine movie role.  In this instance, art  provided a counter vision to the restricted identity available to women in American culture at that time, and a window into the future.

An Enduring Bond

Like millions of other Americans, I hit the road this 4th of July weekend in search of…and found this tranquil cove along the Au Sable River in northern Michigan.  When I was a boy, my grandfather would take me to this secluded locale on summer vacations.   I can still feel his presence during my re-visits.

Au Sable River, Michigan

Au Sable River, Michigan

A Flower Wilted and a Grandmother’s Gift

au sable 5 23 15 035

       My Grandmother MacEwen I knew  late in her life,  when she was hobbled by arthritis and worn from  decades as  a coal miner’s wife.  “Son, I’m getting aw’fy gimpy in my old age,” she would  tell me  in her Scottish burr.    She lived three times zones west of us and so her visits were a rare gift.  My uncle drove  across the empty expanse of the Canadian prairie in his British-made car, with my grandmother, as I imagined, a stoic passenger.  Uncle Tam  made the trek across three provinces and five  states  in three days, which was a marvel to me when I became old enough to drive.  “We always make Winnipeg by sundown,” he assured me.   Eight hundred miles separated their  home in the foothills   of the Canadian Rockies  from that urban outpost sprouting in  the Manitoba wheat fields.

         My grandmother’s appearance spoke of a life far removed from that of  my more prosperous relatives  in Detroit.  Lizzie, as my uncle called her, wore her iron gray hair pulled back in a bun, although a few disobedient strands escaped the control of her hair pins.  Her face was deeply wrinkled, with her upper lip pulled up as if she had  a stroke years ago.  Usually, a rumpled, charcoal  gray dress hung loosely about her, and varicose veins showed plainly beneath her nylons.  Her slippers were a  concession to the bunions on her feet.

Grandma MacEwen could be  abrasive:   critical, even spiteful toward my uncle and my mother. But,  to her grandson she was the most honestly emotional person in the family.  While our home was so often silent  and bleak, in her rare stays  Grandma  brought with her recognition and  affection  for me.  I often puzzled, as I grew older, over  these two sides  to her character.

Revealing  a slice of  family history one day, my mother told me of Grandma MacEwen’s youth, growing up in the Scottish town of  Dunfermline at the turn of the 20th century.  Her father was a miner, taking the tram car down into the  coal dungeons,  working hunched over  from can’t see to can’t see.   At the local  grade school, bright-eyed young  Lizzie  was a top student, held in high regard by her teachers.  “Aye, the wee lass shows  promise.”

To my grandmother’s  misfortune, childhood was not a luxury that a coal miner’s family could afford. The day Lizzie  finished sixth grade, her father told her that  school was a waste of time for  girls.  My grandmother, then 11  years-old, would start her job  in the textile factory near  Pittencrief.

Now, as I think  about that long ago conversation with my mother,  I picture diminutive  Lizzie dwarfed by  the  power looms.  The gauzy lint hangs  in the air.  Her lunch has to be gobbled while she is standing.  Her  fingers are sore, always.  Perhaps she is not  nimble enough, and the straw boss whacks her with his  switch.  “You’ll no be loafin’  around this job like a store dug!”

Tending her machines, she often thinks of her days in school, being called on, writing on the blackboard, then basking in  her teacher’s  praise.  She recalls  her father’s blunt  words that took her schooldays  away–the back of his hard hand across her face when she protested.  She brushes the floating  lint from her face.   The resentment, the cold impotent rage, she buries deep inside.

As a teenager, she graduates from the factory to marry a coal miner.  Young Mike  is an adventurous lad, and they try their luck across the water  in Canada.  They settle in  a  coal mining town on the banks of the Saskatchewan River, surrounded by  the   wilderness.  He works hard in the mine, earning a promotion to pit boss; she bears three children and two survive.  There is enough money for groceries, but sometimes not enough coal to heat the cramped wooden house, so the eggs  freeze in the cupboard.  Christmas gifts for the children are out of the question, except for  a few oranges in their stockings.  She watches her son stricken with a mysterious spinal ailment, which leaves him partly crippled because there is no money for fancy, big-city doctors.  She wonders if her husband will come home safely from the mines.  He always does, but two of her cousins  are not so lucky.

This childhood, this life, this fate, might wear many people out.  It did grind down many people into despair.  My grandmother, however, kept a spark alive.  She was the one who picked up her family from western Canada during the Depression and moved them to Scotland so her husband could find work.  Later, she brought them back to Canada when the coal industry revived, though on the return voyage she kept a wary lookout for Nazi U-boats lurking in the  north Atlantic.

And in her old age, amidst the bitterness that infected her, but did not consume her, she found within herself a well of affection to bequeath to a grandson.  In return, she especially appreciated hearing how well he was doing in school.

The Poetry of Chance and Loss

Newburgh Lake, Michigan

The windows of the student union looked out through the overhanging branches of  stately elms.  Through a gap in the trees, Lake Mendota appeared, sparkling in the sunshine.  The breeze had kicked up some whitecaps on the blue-green water and a sprinkling of sailboats coasted with the wind.

At first, I thought it was just my imagination, but a familiar tune floated above the hubbub of the crowd.  This song, the poetry of chance and loss, sung to the chords of an acoustic guitar, had been one of our favorites in the dorm a few years back.  Catching the lyrics of the last verse, I smiled and said to myself, “Yep, back in Madison.”

The dark wood paneling of the room absorbed the light coming in, so faces were vague until my eyes adjusted.  When I scanned the room again, I noticed her sitting alone, apparently engrossed in a book.  She was wearing jeans split to create bell-bottoms and a black blouse, open with a v-neck, a choice I had always appreciated, as it set off her violet-blue eyes.  She wore her dark brown hair longer than I remembered, not loose but tucked beneath a silk lavender scarf.   On the wooden table, a coffee cup sat off to one side, next to an open notebook.  A leather purse, decorated with jade jewelry, apparently of some American Indian design, hung from her chair.

A long minute’s hesitation, then I found myself walking in the direction of her table, turning over in my mind whether to say hello—pretending to myself that I had a choice.  After closing the book, she put down her glasses and rubbed her eyes.  She untied the scarf and then ran her fingers through her hair.  Slipping the scarf inside the purse, she started to get up.

I blurted out, “Hi, Natalie.” The beer on my tray chose that moment to slide and I had to manage a neat balancing act to avoid dousing a girl at the next table.

Natalie Mariposa looked in my direction.  After a moment, she smiled as if she had been expecting me.  “Well?”  She gestured to the empty spot next to her and eased back into her chair.

Natalie had made up my mind for me, as it seemed she always had.  As at our first meeting, she still reminded me of a young Elizabeth Taylor.  Since nothing profound or even the least bit cool came to mind, I said, “This is quite a coincidence.”

“Howdy, stranger.  I saved a seat for you.” Again the smile. “For three years.”

But the Greatest of These Is Love

kensington park, michigan
Reaching into the past, happening upon a few words of American sports’ toughest competitor,  we find  a harmony to calm our time’s discord. “What is the meaning of love?” iconic coach Vince Lombardi once opened a team meeting of his Green Bay Packers. Doubtless, these words had never before been spoken in a  pro football buzz session and have not since. Just where was the old man going with this one, linebackers must have wondered while exchanging glances with running backs. What the hell did love have to do with beating the Chicago Bears next Sunday?

Even today, it is remarkable that  this complex leader could drive his men to excel in the bare-knuckled combat of American football while he pondered the meaning of love and its place in his sport.  What might explain how an implacable dictator of his team could single-handedly integrate housing in Green Bay, or offer to buy a bus ticket out of town for the first player he heard bashing gays—and this over 50 years ago.

Lombardi once unabashedly told a reporter on national TV, “My players don’t just like each other, they love each other.” This expression came from someone who had once played on a defense nicknamed the Seven Blocks of Granite. The Super Bowl trophy bears his name. His storied Pack won 5 league championships in 7 years, not with finesse, but by physical intimidation. His team endured the Ice Bowl, and triumphed in those brutal Arctic conditions. One player said that in the minus 20 degree weather the ball felt like a brick in his hands and the frozen turf like a slab of concrete as the Packers drove for the winning touchdown. Coach Lombardi’s was a macho world, yet he felt deeply, and said often, that there is love for each other in the game of football.

The coach explained to his warriors what he meant by love. “Anybody can love something that is beautiful or smart or agile. But you will never know love until you can love something that isn’t beautiful, isn’t bright or isn’t glamorous.” Love among teammates always came back to one simple question, Lombardi said. “Can you accept someone for his inabilities?
Accepting someone for his inabilities is a concept lost in the haze of hostility hovering over our society. In today’s politics, where anger and contempt reign unchecked, Lombardi’s precepts about love and its place in an aggressive world ring like a bell, clear and true. Only a strong, positive emotion can counter the negative emotions that pervade politics. An appeal to the better angels of our nature is the alternative.

It is possible to envision a political world where an opponent’s weaknesses are not derided and distorted to raise cash, or to score cheap partisan points for the next election cycle. Differences could be respected within a fair contest where rules are adhered to, not cynically bent. In Lombardi’s era, American politics was a contest often played this way, though after the last four decades of descent into the maelstrom that might be hard to fathom.

The experiences of two famous political rivals in 1850s America suggest a path forward. The United States would have broken apart if these men in 1861 had not put aside their personal differences, which were considerable, for the love of their country. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had been longtime foes in the back alley politics of Illinois, fought an election there in 1858, waged the most famous debates in American history, and met in the bitter presidential contest of 1860. They were a pair of determined adversaries whom Lombardi surely would have appreciated.
Yet, when the South seceded after Lincoln took office, Douglas approached his former rival and offered to embark on a speaking tour to enlist Democrats in the Union cause. Lincoln did not treat him as the vanquished foe, but as a respected partner. Without Douglas’ selfless act (his fragile health was ruined by the exertion), it is doubtful whether Democrats would have rallied to Lincoln’s leadership. A purely Republican effort to preserve the Union was doomed to failure; only with substantial Democratic support was success possible.

Following this brief detour to the Civil War era, we return to face Lombardi’s enduring question. During grueling and often brutal practices, the Packers would curse Lombardi under their breaths. Back in the locker room, they would tell each other what a son-of-a-bitch he was. As they matured and looked back over their lives, some of his best players told a different story. Forty years after Lombardi’s death, in a distant echo of the coach’s question at that team meeting, Hall of Famer Herb Adderley told an interviewer, “I love my father. But Coach Lombardi I think about every day.” Such is the legacy of love, even in an aggressive corner of the world.

Could You Have a Male Repeat That Suggestion?

forbearer of Katniss

Diana

10 Words for Each Girl to Learn [Article]

I was so impressed by the linked  article   by Soraya Chamaly, which  a friend shared on Facebook. Employing telling personal anecdotes supplemented by research, the author paints a vivid picture of  women’s voices being ignored  in a male world.   “A woman, speaking clearly and out loud, can say something that no one appears to hear, only to have a man repeat it minutes, maybe seconds later, to accolades and group discussion.”

Reading the article, I saw a reflection of my law school experience, some 10 years ago.  Classes were 50% women, yet discussions unfailingly took on a male-oriented, competitive tone.  Women students’ contributions were diminished until they simply declined to play the game.

In addition to the obvious limiting of women’s horizons, excluding or belittling women’s voices impoverishes our culture and ossifies its thinking.  As social problems prove resistant to the traditional male solutions, this is a deficit that we can clearly no longer afford.

If you like this article, you might also be interested in my short (I promise!) essay on Katniss Everdeen’s social/political significance.
“Solicitous to those most in need of solace, yet entirely capable of the hunter/warrior’s resolve, Katniss’ character suggests a renewal for our ailing spirit in politics.”