2410451 Curiosities served
2006-12-01 7:45 AM
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Who am I? I've been asking myself the same question for years. Most women answer by reciting whose wife they are, whose sister, whose daughter, whose friend; are they married and how many children they have. A definition by relationship. But who is the person at the core?
I'm a New England Yankee by birth three days after Pearl Harbor, (if anyone's interested). The genuine article. My ancestors crossed the Atlantic not once, but three times, looking for religious freedom. They were Quakers and their first arrival on these shores taught them the truth about Puritan intolerance.
Back they went to England, only to discover that Quakers and Catholics were being executed in their homeland. One last trip back to the colonies and settlement in a more Quaker-friendly group. All the while my female ancestress was naming her babies Tolerance, Deliverance, Sarah, Faith, and so forth. Can you imagine what it took to make that voyage while pregnant and raising little ones? I come from sturdy, resilient stock.
In the 19th century, my ancestors maintained a station on the Underground Railroad. I reflect and honor a heritage of political and social values, of speaking truth to power. Behind the massive kitchen fireplace, accessed by pull-out cabinet shelves, was a small waiting area with a bench made from bricks. Inside you can see the holes drilled for air. That's where the refugees stayed, waiting for dark and the next conductor to come and get them.
I grew up in Connecticut in a tiny rural village (a village green, a general store, a gas station and a church). I skipped a couple of grades along the way and graduated from Woodstock Academy at 16. Left home and went to California, which was as far away as I could go without falling into the ocean.
I went to college in California, mainly to get as far away as possible from New England where I grew up. I actually applied as far away as the University of Hawaii (I had good enough grades to go anywhere I wanted to), but they turned me down because I wouldn't state my race on the application.
I re-submitted my form with the word "Human" written in the box to indicate race, but they turned me down again, stating that they wanted a picture attached to the application. I should have affixed a picture of my cat.
That was a long time ago. I'm sure discriminatory practices are much more subtle now, and directed more against Martians and androids than against humans. Heh.
I have a B.A. in Philosophy with minors in Psychology and Geography. My last year at Stanford I spent in Stanford-in-Italy in Florence (Villa San Paolo), where my stepfather's Italian roots and my fluency in Italian and French made me feel right at home.
I have an M.A. in South Asian Studies from Berkeley, where I was a grad student during the Free Speech Movement days. If you know anything about that era, you can fill in the rest for yourself.
Freedom Summer I registered voters in the South, Mississippi 1964, if my memory is correct (it was a long time ago). I served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in India, doing community development projects.
I taught school in the poorest areas of my current city for many years and now serve the students of our city in a different capacity. I went into teaching in that community because I believed then (and still do) that's where the best teachers are needed most. And that all children deserve the best education: they are our future.
I learned to read from Winnie-the-Pooh, and the first word I learned was "the", not because I knew the letters, but by the configuration of the word. I was able to pick it out as my mother ran her fingers along the lines while reading out loud to me. When I realized that what I saw was what you could say--well, there was no way to stop me from learning to read.
To this day, I still have trouble with the alphabet, because I learned it later, in school, after the fact. It never seemed very important to me. As a teacher, my students loved to stump me with quick questions: what letter comes after "p"? They could always say it faster than I, because I always had to say the alphabet through to myself until I came to the right letters.
They loved the contest, they loved being able to do something better than the teacher, and it was fun for me, too (plus the lesson being that even if everyone isn't at the same skil level, but everyone can be good at something).
In the spirit of my New England ancestry, I am a Unitarian Universalist and my Unitarian community has become my second home. I take it as a compliment when you refer to me as a liberal.
And now, approaching retirement fairly soon, I'm looking forward to being able to devote myself full time to service projects and political activism for candidates and policies that enhance justice, peace and caring for the planet that nourishes us all.
* * * *Some memories: I lived for several years year-round in a house on the beach. Well, about 10 yards up from the beach. We watched the Atlantic tides and the weather perforce, sun and wind, rain and sleet, calm and bright. After the tide turned, I could always tell within 15 minutes plus or minus, when high tide would happen. I never thought it was a big deal. I must have unconsciously used markers to judge it by and shifted the time schedule in winter and back again in summer, I guess. Maybe it was partly an artefact of not thinking about it too hard. Maybe it was the seagulls....but it was definitely useful, because part of our "yard" became an island for an hour on each side of high tide, and was connected to dry land by a sand bar the rest of the time. I was supposed to be on the dry side of the yard at high tide, but occasionally I'd be caught on the little island and either swam home or waited it out.
At spring tides, the water was so high it would come in the house and, with the floor awash in sea water, I would stay in bed and read until it receded, the dog next to me, snoring away. He was black and white, long haired, 40 pounds or so; his name was Major. At very low tides, I could walk out and out and out across the mud flats, picking up clams until I had a bushel of them. When I stepped near them, they would squirt dark muddy water as they closed up, so they were easy to find.
Blue shelled crabs were easy to catch. Just a longish piece of string, some meaty orts and a net on a pole. Dangle the meat tied to the end of the string in the water off the rocks of the breakwater. When the crab came up to munch, scoop him up in the net, letting the females loose to reproduce, keeping only the males. Yummy with a bit of lemon and dipped in melted butter. Free, too.
* * * *One book that changed my life: Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke.
It was a dark and stormy day in the middle of a monsoon season in India. The Peace Corps had supplied each team with a book locker for those times when there was no possibility of doing anything outdoors and everyone, Indian and Englishman alike, stayed inside and did something to fill the time. Since I wasn't married, I was doing something else.
Midday it was so dark outside, it was like the night time. I lighted several candles (no electricity or running water or indoor plumbing) and put them on the top of the bookcase, where they would provide light over my left shoulder for reading. Over the period of several days, I read my way through the book locker until two were left: Paul Samuelson's weighty tome on Economics and Arthur C. Clarke's slender novel, Childhood's End.
I actually read the Samuelson first, not understanding a word, and in desperation for solace from the ponderous words, finally read the Clarke book, even though it was merely science fiction.
I was astonished at the power of the story and the freedom science fiction gave the author to ask questions. After finishing the book, I left my hut in a blinding rainstorm, thunder and lightning, got on my bicycle, sari and all, and rode 10 miles to the nearest settlement that had a secondhand bookstore. There I found two or three books in the same genre (the proprietor wouldn't let me in because I was soaking wet), wrapped them carefully in waxed paper so they would stay dry, and cycled back to my village compound.
The only reason I can remember Samuelson's name is that it's so closely linked to Childhood's End in my life. I've been a fan of science fiction ever since that time, for 40 years now, thanks to Arthur C. Clarke and the Peace Corps.
* * *
Every summer we had gone to the fair. For many years it was the Guilford fair, right close to my home. My favorite rides were the merry-go-round and the ferris wheel. And I was always treated to cotton candy. Sometimes I would try the penny pitch or throwing a softball through a clown's mouth, but they always seemed like a waste of money since I seldom won anything that way.
The most fun part of the day was spent wandering up and down the various exhibits and rides, with the smells and noise and colorful attractions. I liked to look at the people--the fair people--and imagine what their lives were like, going from town to town, doing this day after day. I checked out all the exhibits that had animals, too.
I remember as a young child riding the merry-go-round and reaching from the horse's back for the brass ring. Finally, I passed the arm holding the brass ring just as the horse reached the top of its cycle and, reaching out as far as I could, grabbed the ring. My mother, of course, was always sure that I would fall and break my neck. But alone, I could do my own risk assessment. And truth be told, I was pretty careful.
The ring, once grabbed, was exhanged for my choice of stuffed animals. I chose a kangaroo (the most exotic animal displayed) and I believe Kanga is still in my attic waiting for her brass ring.
One year, finally, my mother decided I was old enough to enjoy the fair by myself. She dropped me off early in the morning with five dollars (five dollars was a princely sum in 1950) and told me to have a good time. She would pick me up at 5 p.m. to go back home. It was the first time I had ever been left completely on my own in a public place. I immediately started checking to see if I could read someone's watch from a distance and figuring out what 5 o'clock would look like upside down (analog watches in those days, remember).
That parameter established, I set out to enjoy myself. I pitched pennies, rode the merry-go-round twice, bought pink cotton candy, and won a small prize shooting arrows into a target pinned onto a bale of straw. Lunch time came and I was hot and tired, so I sat down at the booth where a small dark man was selling Italian subs (submarine sandwiches also known as grinders). I bought a lemonade and half a sandwich. Every person who came by heard from me how delicious the sandwich was, especially with a nice cold glass of lemonade. Pretty soon the owner of the booth had more business than he could handle, and he had me filling glasses of lemonade and serving them to customers.
To my astonishment he gave me ten dollars after the lunch crowd dwindled away and thanked me for my help. I had never had ten dollars before. Nearly time to go home and I was tired and footsore. And on top of the world. I had been on my own in the big world for the first time and I had earned my first real money. That man actually paid me to help him, bringing customers in off the fairway and serving them lemonade. The lemonade wasn't sparkling, but I was.
I kept checking people's wristwatches until it was 5 p.m. and then I made my way with the other outbound folks to the main gate. My mom was there, waiting for me. She asked me how the day was. I said, "Fine." She could never have understood what a wonderful day it had been (she would have been horrified at my talking to all those strangers) and how I would remember it more than 50 years later for the pure joy of being on my own for the first time in my life and doing it successfully.
* * *
My little sister was named Lucy, after my mother (and she was named after a sibling who died in infancy as was the custom in the early 20th century). She lived only a few years and died of influenzal meningitis. Shortly after her death, a cure for meningitis was announced, and it just destroyed my mother, who had a psychotic break.
I remember my sister's death this way. I was sitting alone in the apartment (NavalHousing Project on Oakwood Avenue), it was getting dark, no lights on in the apartment. I was about 7 years old. The phone rang, I answered "Lawrence residence" and the voice on the other end said that they regretted to inform me that Lucy Lawrence had died that day.
I didn't know if my mother was dead, my sister was dead, or both of them. I was alone and I didn't know what to do. I just sat there, alone and afraid in the dark, until my mother came home. When she saw me, she knew immediately something was wrong, and when I told her, she started to scream and scream and scream. I comforted her as best I could, but I was only 7 and terrified myself. I didn't know what to do.
To this day, I flinch when the telephone rings and I hate to talk on it. Mostly I use my cell phone to text.
* * * *
Nowadays I work in transportation for the second largest school district in the country as a planner. I still love to read science fiction; I loved my (now deceased) dog (and plan eventually to get another); I enjoy gardening and playing with the cats.
I'm still working on 'who I am' and enjoying the journey in the meantime.
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