Moments when exhaustion meets human nature puts me back in touch with my animal nature. And so it begins. Each evening, after a ten-hour work day at school, I curl up on the sofa with cat in lap to groom him. Running my fingers through his fur, up and down his back, stopping to feel bumps on his head, I am a ruthless mama searching for fleas to kill. This is a generous season for insects. Fall brings dry, hot weather when it should be damp and cool. Eggs hatch. Gnats fly. Fleas are carried in on the back of my wild feline.
Now, confined until the first freeze, we both have lost our ways. We strain against confinement, routine; we mourn the loss of the unexpected. There is no balance, for neither feels the joy of feral surge. We are tethered to room after room after room.
Damn this weather. Damn these fleas.
During the 1960s, I grow up under the constant threat of nuclear war. As an elementary student, I practice “duck and cover” regularly in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA. A booming steel town where everyone is certain we would be a first target; in the 1970s this fear haunts my dreams; the 1980s, the fear of nuclear war surfaces again. Non-profit organizations rally our generation to action resulting in strong advocacy for peace by women of my generation*. I play my small part through art – “duck and cover” long gone as real response. Now, it is back. In today’s Washington Post Op-Ed section appears a piece – “Why is Trump suddenly talking about World War III?“.
A coincidence. There is this, dear reader. I participate in a wonderful online writing group – Juncture – with Philadelphia writer Beth Kephart. She sends out a “new” writing prompt – not about war, not about childhood – but this is my response.
She seems so tall, my mother, as I look up at her sideways. Her profile, shoulder-length hair, dark and thick, falls in gentle waves. The white shirtwaist dress worn with a large leather belt around her slim waist. She is beautiful, my mother. She is worried. I can tell this easily, as our neighbor barges in through our front door. I see her face change – softened to furrowed brow, relaxed to taut jawline, ruby red lips at the edge of a smile to one that is frowning.
I pull at her hand, the one where her arm rests against her side while the other holds her waist tightly. She turns her head slowly, tilted so she can meet my questions. It is only then I see the fear. Her eyes are filled up with fear. I know this is bad. I know not to ask, but I will. I need to know what news walked in so boldly without a second thought to us. Yes, right through that door – the one that is always open, always welcoming. She speaks softly – not to me, not to anyone but herself. Perhaps she needs hearing this said aloud. Her voice needing to carry the weight of the words. “Kennedy is sending ships toward Cuba. This is World War III.”
Truth told. I do not believe in coincidence.
“…value dignity in the face of battering conditions.” Beth Kephart
The ritual of faith in my childhood taught me to look at death. Directly. Unflinchingly. At seven years of age, I sang in our school’s children’s choir for every funeral. Hidden away in the great ceiling, a small loft for even smaller children.The great organ dwarfing our statures. Both beloved and severe, the choir mistress stands erect, in black, baton in hand. Cold eyes piercing through the young’s urge to giggle – to fend off sorrow. A Gregorian chant of “Requiem aeternam” begins. We are consumed by solemnity. Only our voices echoing within the high walls to greet the slow procession for the dead. The bowed heads covered in black lace. The straight backs of men in dark suits, like soldiers. Stepping carefully to muffle the clipped sounds of their wingtips against the hard tiled floors echoing against the monophonic repetition. The mantra of children – of innocence – to greet death. To relieve the sorrowful burdens from the shoulders of the unknown. Of the adults.
An initiation for the loss in my future. So many deaths, it seems, that every one is personal. The prayers rise up for love incarnate – my mother, my father, my sister-in-law, my childhood friend to those splashed across the newspapers. The drown Syrian child on Greece’s rocky coast, the African-American father lying dead on the street in Charleston, the babes and their teachers in Newton, the street carnage of Paris’s les jeunesses… on and on.
Far from my childhood in months and years, the “Requiem aeternam” resonates. Now, it is my head bowed, my back that is straight. Faith remains the constant.
This post is dedicated to the choristers, past and present, of St. Alban’s School for Boys, where their voices fill me with longing.
The Christmas season. On our table standing proudly are these basic ingredients: Pillsbury flour, Land O’Lakes butter, Philadelphia brand cream cheese and Rumford’s baking powder – the one in the small, red can. Next to this are her utensils: a large stoneware bowl to mix the pastry, glass measuring cups and inexpensive aluminum measuring spoons, a knife from our everyday set, and a well-worn, wooden rolling-pin. My Aunt Agnes Check’s recipe – a blending of Slovak family heritage with Italian sensibilities. A new heritage.
Pounds of Diamond’s unshelled walnuts wait for my mother and me on this winter evening – a school night. We sit at the white porcelain kitchen table-top that my parents purchased when they were newlyweds. Metal nutcrackers in hand, we sit together in a comfortable silence and begin to squeeze and crack. It is tough work for a ten-year old. Repetitive. Detailed. Inexperienced, I laboriously pick out the bits and pieces of meat left behind in the inner shells – spaces dark and convoluted in nature. My mother’s pile is substantive while mine – quite a pitiful showing for the attention I am dedicating to this task – fill only a cup. Our conversations alleviate the tediousness; our banter brightens the evening hours. We talk of the nuns, my teachers; the friends and the cliques to which I belong and those where I am shunned, already at a tender age. Back to family, she carefully guides the talk, of Christmas gifts, wrappings, of course, eating. Ham or turkey? Both kinds of potatoes? My hands begin to hurt, but I am loathe to leave. Feeling as if I am caught in some dark fairy-tale with the impossible task, I persevere not for my survival, but for my mother’s love.
My son, plugged in, and baking kiffles for the holidays. Same recipe; different generation.
5 September 2016, Labor Day, U.S.
There is a muchness in my life, and you are the invisible force in its creation. Will language be a barrier? My tongue is ready to imitate the “chs” and rolling “r”s, but I am so sorry to disappoint you, drahá dedo, but my few Slovak words have slipped away from my childhood, along with you.
For your son, my father – Joseph, thank you. Resemblance between father and son was obvious. There are few black and white photographs of you; ones that my tety proudly display in their slightly tarnished silver frames. There you sit in your stiff, formal suit looking stern and slightly possessive of your wife, my baba. Yes, dedo, my father had that look, your face, your lines, although his evoked protectiveness, rather than possessive. Perhaps you were that way too? Protective of your fifteen children and wife. Yes. I will think of you in this light. For you are my beloved father’s father.
Joseph, your son, too, had a strong Catholic faith. This devotion was not only to be found in the pews of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, but sitting at the kitchen table, sharing the five o’clock dinner, only after we all were seated; after the blessing, hands folded. This, every day of his long life. Reliably loving. This must be what you carried with you from Demite to Bethlehem. In your bones and blood. This faith. This steadfastness. How else could you, #800111040064, have boarded that massive immigrant ship with other Hungarian-Slovaks, and Finns, Swedes, Germans, Russians, all strangers going to this place unknown, speaking a language that pains the ear – no diacritical markings to soften a hard alphabet? This devotion that could not be shaken. You gifted my father, and then, me, with these qualities. Again, ďakujem, for these gifts have saved my life.
When you fell from that forty-foot steel-mill platform in 1936, your devotion to family did not die along with you. How could you know, even then, that it would be your third-born son, Joseph, never to finished high-school, who would take up your mantle? How could you know that he would put aside his mathematical brilliance, forgo offers of college, and go to labor where you died? Working the “shift.” How could you know that he would be the son who stayed home on the South Side to care for his bereft mother and the remaining thirteen siblings? How could you know that he would never carry a bitterness for lost opportunities while his oldest and youngest brothers were college-bound, the star athletes at Catholic universities? He remained on 6th Street; never wavering, walking up and down the steep incline, metal lunch pail in hand. Countless Good Fridays of potatoes and buttermilk.* Atonement. My father was dutiful, môj dedko. Always.
I imagine you. Like this. Steadfast. Reserved. Dutiful. Filled with a love for your God, your new country, and above all, your family. I would have loved to hold your calloused hand, to feel the tickle of your moustache, to see the softness in those eyes that saw such hardship. I imagine this. That my father was like you. I imagine that you would have loved me, too, moj dedo.
Vaše vnučka, Tina Hudak
* “Good Friday was a day of complete fast and abstinence during which the priest removed the purple veils from all the statues in order to reveal the crucified Christ and all His martyrs. On this day Slovaks generally ate only baked,skinned potatoes and sour milk” (Stolarik 79).
“Falls To Death Bethlehem, George Hudak, 57, Fell 40 Feet to His Death from a Platform at the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Plant.” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader [Wilkes-Barre, PA] 30 July 1936, Evening News sec.: 9. Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News. Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. Web. 3 Sept. 2016. Need to sign-up for access to electronic edition.
Stolarik, M. Mark. Growing Up on the South Side: Three Generations of Slovaks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 18080-1976. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1985. Print.
The enclosed space, perhaps an afterthought, at the back of our house is small. The size reminds me of our inexpensive rug. One that the working class buys, bordering on gaudy, to show that they too, have dreams of more. Here, windows are everywhere. They gaze back with tired faces encased in layers of hardened enamel paint. Pure white, because it is cheap. Chipped from years of opening and closing, despite their thickness. The early morning summer sun blinds the eyes. Brittle paper shades carefully rolled onto wooden rods are tinged brown. Weathered, they remain serviceable still, for this family of the sewing mills and steel yards in Pennsylvania.
My mother pulls on silky braided cords dangling at the shades’ edges. Faded from sun and use, they too, remain serviceable closing out the blistering heat – heat that runs through this long, narrow house of brick as fans whirl. She shuts out the Angelus blue morning-glories. Silently, I watch her, but do not enter. Waiting, as only a good Catholic girl can, waiting for her to relinquish this room. This back porch.
My world. To a small seven-year old girl it is an immense space with infinite possibilities. Closing the kitchen door softly – the shared kitchen door of my mother’s world – brown & white saddle-shoed feet enter. They are eager, but silent. Alone. Breathing in the heat, the tepid air, the wonder of it all.
To balance my life this school year, I have begun an online writing course with author, Beth Kephart. Grateful. Grateful to be able to mesh feelings, words, and imagery for so inspiring a teacher.
I am reluctant to do this. Share. Having dragged out my low artistic energy into August, I admit, right here – right now – that it is a “failure.” Did I create something? Yes. Can one call it art? Yes. Did it fulfill me? No. Absolutely not. No way. And here, dear reader, lies the most valuable experience (from which I have yet to dissect, analyze, and learn). This failure is a teaching moment for my Self.
I know and feel this: I cannot go back. Back to former techniques and past imagery.
I know and feel this, too: I must go forward. Forward with simplicity. Forward with eyes open.
Do you remember being angst-ridden with the knowledge that when you returned to elementary school in the autumn, your teacher would have you write – in class – that dreaded essay, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation”? For those of us who spent our summers at home – riding bicycles, walking to the local pool, and catching lightning bugs, the pressure to find something remotely interesting could bring us to tears while gripping a pencil covered by a sweaty palm, forehead millimeters above the blue-lined paper, while offering any deal to any saint for one good idea. Only one. Just to get through the assignment with some shred of ten-year old dignity. Not such a high bar. Do you remember?
I do. And I have finally done something interesting.
On my summer vacation I visited my two sisters, Sister #1 and Sister #2, in Bethlehem, PA. No sweaty hands this time, but joyous fingers, not to make you envy me, not because I did something so extraordinary, but rather because of this: I found the adventure with my sisters in doing the ordinary. Oh, and being of that age – yes, that one – this list will help me recall this summer – this one delightful summer – in detail as I mellow.
The summer of 2016 with the sisters included the following “special” experiences:
- My favorite clothing store, In The Mood, one where previously I have bought countless items (with NO tax!) closed this year. In its place, however, is an upscale “home goods” boutique to rival any located in Washington, D.C. Walking into Domaci as in a dream, my soliloquy reads, “I am throwing out all my furniture, and buying everything from here!” Yes, at my age -yes, that one – I was lustful…for the table, the floor mats, the sofas…even the damn candle!
- But alas, Sister #2 and I had to scurry across the street to Healing Hands where our one hour therapy sessions (not a “50-minute one hour session”…you who recognize this misnomer, understand the reference, I have no doubt!) awaited each: me, a Warm Bamboo massage, and dear sister, a therapeutic Swedish one. Never has an hour passed so quickly and so peacefully. Soft music, soft candlelight, and strong hands. Well oiled, well pressed, and well done, it was a feat to get our feet to the floor, stand upright, and totter down the stairway resuming our mundane lives.
- The evening brought and Sister #1 brought the next adventure to the fore – fine dinning. While this may sound trés mondain, be assured it is not. Sister #2 and I have no discriminating palates in our genes; Sister #1 possesses all of them! After much first-born lobbying on her part, and sheer guilt on our second and third-born parts, we all agreed to try a “new” restaurant located in an “old” location. Many Bethlehemites grew up with The Lantern’s steak-sandwich sauce dripping down their chins. On the very steak-sandwich spot of our past, we entered an uncluttered, cool and calm atmosphere; we entered Adagio. Have you yet eaten crabmeat in white chocolate sauce? I suggest you do. Food effusiveness –“That was really good!” – is not one of my more over traits, but I remain grateful to Sister #1 for this advocacy work. And, it was really good.
But the heat…oh, the heat the next day. One simply had to participate in the next adventure!
- Swimming. There is nothing that makes you feel like the brave and intrepid explorer, than to venture outside one’s comfort zone. Sister #2 had that gleam in her eye, so we hit the open road for the pool. Oh, not the one usually frequented – the municipal pool at Monocracy, rather for one where we had to follow directions, travelling up and down the suburban lanes in the hinterlands, turning at Stop signs never seen before – all to reach the Hanover Township Community Pool. Throwing our bathing accoutrements under a magnificent locust tree swaying gently in the 90+ degree breeze, we all but ran like the twelve-year-old selves to which we had reverted, and jumped in!
- Refreshed and energized, I talked Sister #2 into a drive-by adventure – an adventure I had quietly kept to myself- to visit an abandoned house. “It’s right on the way home!” I cried piteously. I was driving, anyway. I confess, as a child born and raised in Bethlehem, PA, I never learned anything about a remarkable man named Archibald Johnston – or his home! Yes, kindred Moravian College graduates – that Johnston of Johnston Hall! He was quite a man; he had quite a house. Parking the car after our circuitous drive through what appeared to be a dead end, we began our early evening constitutional across an expansive green lawn, interrupting a deer, a groundhog, and almost stepping on a chipmunk. Have you ever seen something so beautiful in your mind’s eye that it hurt? It is this house. Even in its state of disrepair -bordering on decay- it is sublime. It is an evocative place. It holds memories of the past, and dreams for a future. It left me with an ache in my heart.
Within a few blocks came the final adventures…
- No adventure is complete without the solo expedition – a late morning stroll to the nearby café, Jumbars, to meet with a former colleague. Experiencing an encounter as if time had never interrupted defies the logical order of chronological minutes, hours and days. One might wonder, “What is it about this connection that allows the threads of all those yesterdays to mesh seamlessly so that time becomes irrelevant?” Amidst shoveling fresh fruit, grilled muffins into our mouths and downing it with freshly brewed coffee, both of us shared teaching stories, tales of chickens and dogs, futures yet to be. Insulated within the familial atmosphere of this place and comforted by the home-baked love of generations (Thank you, Anna Jumbar!), time stopped. Friendship resumed.
- Through the years on my trips “home,” I pass a lovely bookshop storefront. It is only blocks from the sisters’ home, yet I have never been inside. Today was the day. The heat was oppressive, yet one cannot remain indoors for hours on end, no? Sister #1 and I set out for a jaunt. A quick walk only a block away. She, in her charming straw hat; I in my “Iron Pigs” baseball cap, we were the only living things outdoors. The heat. The words “used & rare books”was my bait; the opening of the door to The Old Library Bookshop, my hook. Charming. Quaint. Air-conditioned. All of these qualities kept us there browsing for close to an hour through books, photographs, until I spied a gem. An early edition, Newbery title from 1930 – Hitty: Her First Hundered Years by Rachel Field, and illustrated by none other than Dorothy P. Lathrop. Two women I admire greatly. A gift to myself, it is this precious book to mark a treasured few days.
And so I add here,
“I could fill many pages with accounts of that first summer – of the trips we took…of the expeditions…and of all the visits from neighbors and relations who often came to spend all day now that the weather was so fine” (Field 17).
It is two weeks into July (almost) and I am myself moving very slowly with art; I am rusty, dear friend. My process is akin to the Tin Man (The Wizard of Oz) walking before Dorothy had the good sense to oil his joints. Thus far my stiff hand has lumbered with pencils to:
- draw calligraphic lines at a whim
- color with pencils random places on the wallpaper reproduction
- repeat these two steps on varying sizes of paper
- reproduce a pencil drawing of the “key” onto my handmade paper (Why? I am not sure yet!)
- use a three-hole stitch binding with two pieces of work (the simpliest, of course)
- relentlessly ask myself, “What am I doing this for?” and “Who needs more stuff to put away?”
Letting go of reason or purpose and responding instinctively is a difficult behavior to regain after years of neglect. This process. This attempt to “make” art. This metaphor for life.
Please note that you may read The Wizard of Oz in a beautiful color, 1900 edition online thanks to The Library of Congress. Click HERE.
Working artist. These words hold an enormous meaning for me. Since 1996 I have not been a working artist, but a dabbler in the arts. Artists work every. Every day they log many hours thinking, creating, destroying, remaking, and revisiting their work.
As a working librarian, formerly a working artist, I have limited time to all but tap the creative side that lays dormant. Last year I cleared away a massive amount of art supplies and papermaking equipment in order to come to terms with personal changes as an artist – my capabilities and limitations. Now, my supplies are limited; I find this exciting. What can I express with what I have at hand? July is my month for art. A summer adventure in concrete limitations, but not those of the imagination.
My desire, dear reader, is for you to embark with me on this adventure. What do you have, right now, this very moment, in your drawers? Chalk, color pencils, your child’s Crayola watercolors? I share my beginnings here and now to give you the gentle nudge in my direction – a friendly push to take pencil and paper in hand. Use nature to inspire you. Play.
- Faber Castell color pencils
- Strathmore drawing paper, medium weight
- General’s extra black layout pencil No. 555
- Found scrap of wallpaper from our farmhouse wall
- Printer & color copier
- Krylon workable fixative (spray outdoors for ventilation)
What you see here
Size the drawing paper to fit through the printer (8.5 x11). Color copy the scrap of 1901 wallpaper onto this paper. Using my layout pencil to draw calligraphic strokes, and proceeding to color these according to the tones and hues of a seashell. Spraying fixative intermittently as I do not want lines or color pencil to smear, unless I CHOOSE to do this.
Check-in with me mid-July and share your process; share your art. I look forward to seeing your work in progress, as you see mine.